A chilling message was sent to journalists worldwide when all three defendants associated with the murder of Russian investigative journalist Anna Politkovskaya were acquitted this Thursday. However, this will not be the end of the case. Attorneys for the Politkovskaya family promised to appeal the decision and Judge Yevgeni Zubov, the presiding judge, ordered today that the case be reopened.
Politkovskaya, a journalist with the Russian newspaper Novaya Gazeta, was killed in her home in October 2007. She was often critical of the Kremlin, specifically Russia’s policies in the second Chechnyan war. Originally, the Russian government attempted to reassure the public by appointing the Prosecutor General to prosecute, but the trial was riddled with confusion. Throughout November 2008, court officials wondered whether to close the court to the press and requests were filed to remove Judge Zubov from the case because of his indecision regarding barring the media from trial. Moreover, defense attorney Musayez directly contradicted statements from the Kremlin, by suggesting that a government official inside Russia ordered the killing of Politkovskaya. Very little evidence was presented by the prosecution and it was rather unsurprising when, after only two hours of deliberation, the jury returned a “not guilty” verdict.
The jury’s decision was met with international outcry and pessimism regarding continued political violence under the current Russian government. This is especially true because the verdict was returned exactly one month after the killing of human rights lawyer, Stanislav Markelov, and reporter Anastasia Baburova. These deaths have increased worries about the routine killings in the Russian Federation, according to the Human Rights Watch. The Committee to Protect Journalists (CPJ) reports that Russian is the third-deadliest country in the world for journalists, with 49 killed on the job since 1992. Twenty journalists have been killed under the current Russian leadership, 16 of which were murdered in retaliation for their reporting.
The routine killings of Russian journalists is especially disappointing to those who hoped that the Medvedev administration would uphold its promises to protect human rights. Instead, journalists are still being attacked legally and physically. In December 2007, the Russian parliament passed legislation that would eliminate jury trials for cases involving terrorism, extremism, and treason. Reporting against the Kremlin is often considered to constitute extremism, and has led to the imprisonment of many journalists. Even worse, soon after the parliament’s decision, Putin submitted legislation that would make communication with international nongovernmental organizations an act of treason punishable by twenty years in prison. Many international human rights advocates lament that these acts demonstrate intolerance to dissidents in Russia.
The Bush administration, as well as the beginning of the Obama administration, stressed democratization and promoting freedom. However, according to the CPJ, most countries that are most dangerous for journalists are democratic, not at war, and have functioning law enforcement institutions. We must do more than advocate and support de jure democracies, and focus attention on expanding the rights and freedoms of citizens in all nations. Now that the Russian Investigative Committee has been ordered to reopen the case of Politkovskaya’s murder, the international community will be watching and wonder whether the government will again fail to bring a journalist’s killer to justice.