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 I talked yesterday to a Ugandan newspaper editor, who is in the UK for a spell. I asked him about what stories got the most attention. He said - scandals, like here. I asked him what sort - corruption? Political gerrymandering? No, he said, when we put these stories in, circulation drops. You can see it dive. No, the best stories are personal scandals. Are people not interested in learning about corruption? I asked. Not much, he said. They assume they would do the same if they had the chance. I had heard the same thing, in the last year or so of my time in Moscow, in the mid-late nineties. By then, the news media had been more or less free for five years - longer, if you count (as you should) the last few years in office of Mikhail Gorbachev - for, from 1988 to when he left office at the end of 1991, the news media became more and more raucously independent, a fact of which Boris Yeltsin took full advantage, winning them over to his side, as they turned on the one who had set them free. But what did freedom mean? It meant a lot of stories about corruption - so many, and so lurid, that it was impossible to know which were well founded, which were leaks from the secret police, which were paid for, which were ordered by the owner of the newspaper or radio or TV channel to promote his friends, win favour with the powerful or do down his enemies. It meant that journalists, wretchedly paid outside of the Moscow ring road, were often for hire - making money from business people and politicians to write their messages into a story. Yet it also meant that some journalists carried the flame - and paid for it. Often with their lives - because they crossed the local boss, or the more powerful mafia, or didn't deliver on a deal someone thought they had agreed to. We honour Veronica Guerin in Ireland because of her courage in continuing to write for the Sunday Independent about the drug dealers of Dublin even when they gave clear sign of wishing her dead: but in Russia, you had to be a Veronica Guerin every day, almost everywhere, if you wanted to do inquiring journalism. Most, as anywhere, did not. Even the best became disillusioned, as their investigations ad exposes found only indifference. Russia has long had a Veronica Guerin (and then some) in Anna Politkovskaya. Her reporting from Chechnya has had the same desire to nail people who were ruining others' lives: but it also had something more. There was a strong literary flavour: as if she were aware (as she must have been) of the shadow of Tolstoy, who wrote some of his best stories about the Northern Caucasus - and in Haji Murat, wrote a great portrait of an anti-Russian warrior of the mid 19th century, when the Russians were seeking to subdue the most warlike of the Caucasian tribes by burning, starving and mass killing. "Nobody", Tolstoy wrote in Haji Murat, "even discussed hatred toward the Russians. The feeling that all Chechens experienced, from a child to a grown up, was stronger than hatred. It was not hate, but the lack of recognition of these Russian dogs as human beings. It was such a revulsion, disgust and non-comprehension, facing the irrational cruelty of these creatures, that the desire to exterminate them was a natural feeling, as natural as the instinct of self-preservation. [This] was like the desire to exterminate vermin, poisonous spiders and wolves." That ability of Tolstoy to get inside of the skin of the Chechen fighters (whom he himself fought as a young officer) was mirrored in Politkovskaya. This, of course, earned her the enmity - hatred - of many in the Russian military (others revered her, for exposing he truth of the horror through which they were living, and which they were perpetuating). She wrote of Chechnya not as one taking sides, but as one who could see in the conflict the springs of the violence on both. Since she was a Russian, her disgust with her compatriots was often expressed more clearly than with the Chechens. Her death has been taken as a symbol for the continuing closing of the Russian media. There is, we can surmise, more than a little guilt in that judgement, from some of her colleagues. Politkovskaya attracted her share of jealousy and scorn - and not just from those she exposed, but from those who settled for an easier journalistic life than had she. Yet she, too, felt the same frustration as my Ugandan acquaintance: she wrote and wrote, for Novaya Gazeta and other publications; she published books, which were translated and led to honours abroad; but she wrote for a public which, in the main, did not like what she said. The Russian take on the Chechens - especially after the Beslan school massacre of two years ago, engineered by the Chechen warlord Shamil Basayev (himself killed in July this year) in which some 350 civilians were killed, more than half of these children - was that they were bestially cruel terrorists, a view which had some justice. A very few were willing to consider what underlay their hatred of Russia and Russians - which is what Politkovskaya invited them to do. Politkovskaya was one sign - the largest - that Russian media had not returned to pre-Glasnost Soviet days. She could still publish and travel, unimaginable for a critic in Soviet times. But the mass media - above all television - has ceased to reflect oppositionist voices, and makes little attempt at objectivity. The state - or corporations tied to the state - controls all. The limits of comment are wider than under Communism, but have narrowed significantly, to the point where there are no really powerful, influential voices providing a balance to the Russian-nationalists, pro-Kremlin commentators and programme producers. Russian television is now feel-good television - the programming reflecting the sense, at least among the growing middle classes, that life is becoming ever more materially richer. In that atmosphere, public consciences like that of Anna Politkovskaya attract at least indifference and irritation - at worst, the fate that met her in the hall of her flat block last week. She was an honour to our profession: one whose voice will return to haunt the Russians, when they can again hear it.

John Lloyd October 11, 2006 11:01 AM
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This is Keith Richardson's alternative news site. The site aims to promote Truth, Justice, a green clean healthy environment and a wildlife friendly world. It is currently focused on Foreign News and particularly the Middle East.