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Each time a man stands up for an ideal, or acts to improve the lot of
others, or strikes out against injustice, he sends forth a tiny
ripple of a current that can sweep down the
mightiest walls of oppression and resistance.
- Robert F. Kennedy



Deprived of Ignorance as an Excuse


Anthony McIntyre


Index on Censorship honoured Anna Politkovskaya on March the 21st with an award for the most courageous defence of freedom of expression. Already an award-winning Russian journalist - having received the 2000 Golden Pen Award from the Russian Union of Journalists - for her coverage of the war in Chechnya and described by the Guardian as Russia's 'lost moral conscience', her articles developed into a compilation which were published as a book, A Dirty War: A Russian Reporter in Chechnya. It was described as 'a scathing critique of Russia's goals for the war and details the horrific violations of human rights there'. Her work ignited international protests and forced her to flee Russia because of death threats from the country's military. She had also been threatened with rape after her detention by the same military in the Chechen mountains in February 2001. Seemingly, as Eddie Holt has argued, 'individuals and organisations with power do not welcome vigorous investigative journalism by a free press. Why would they?'

A journalist with Novaya Gazeta, she works for one of the few remaining independent papers in Russia. Following the tradition of their Stalinist predecessors the new rulers have taken to blatant repressive measures to ensure that there are no autonomous papers at all. Two court cases on spurious grounds of libel have resulted in fines of £700,000 in a bid to bankrupt the outlet. The proprietors claim they are determined to resist this and will continue to publish for the foreseeable future.

The problem for the authorities is that the paper, through Politkovskaya, has continued to report on the war in Chechnya, covering the human rights abuses against Chechen civilians such as murder, torture and disappearances. Siobhan Dowd (who writes Silenced Voices, a monthly column about imprisoned authors) has likened Putin's war against the Chechens to 'a Milosovic-style ethnic cleansing'. Grozny, the main city, is described by Politkovskaya as 'a living hell. It is another world, some dreadful Hades you reach through the Looking Glass. There are no signs of civilization among the ruins - apart from the people themselves.' Moreover she ridicules any suggestion that Putin's regime has the scantest regard for human rights. 'Any discussion of human rights is silly. Such rights simply do not exist.' Her determination to persist with this type of reporting has prompted attempts by the Russian state press to muzzle her. In the usual manner they moved to demonise her by branding her a Western agent. Her response: 'usually now, a person who is "an enemy of the people" is someone who defends Chechen human rights'.

But if the ''western agent'' allegation were true she would serve the Russian authorities quite well as, according to her, the West know full well what is going on in Chechnya but are content to turn a blind eye to it out of calculated self-interest. Politkovskaya, argues that the Russian president, former KGB operative Vladimir Putin aided by the 'oligarchs that surround him' have depicted the war in Chechnya as a war against 'terror' and so America and other countries will 'stop pressuring Russia. Everyone in the fight against terrorism will stop pressuring Russia.' . In this she would seem to have support from Richard Falk who argued that:

By overgeneralizing the terrorist threat posed by the September 11 attacks, Bush both greatly widened the scope of needed response and at the same time gave governments around the planet a green light to increase the level of violence directed at their longtime internal adversaries. Several important governments were glad to merge their struggle to stem movements of self-determination with the US war on global terror.

While a dissident writer in a region that because of its brutality has produced others but not enough of similar hue, her critique has not been directed solely against the Russian government for its prosecution of the war. Although she holds Putin responsible for the military terror perpetrated in Chechnya, she is also vitriolic in her condemnation of Chechen leaders.

A major obstacle confronting the award winning writer is that the vast majority of Russian people support the murderous war against the Chechens. Perhaps they do so because as a result of filtered state news they have never known the full extent of their government's atrocities in the region. Again as Holt contends 'without censorship, war becomes unbearable'. But if they only feign not to know then Novaya Gazeta and its lead reporter in Chechnya have made them ill at ease by depriving them of any comfortable defence on the grounds of ignorance.

Marginalised and vilified Anna Politkovskaya is not one of those people of whom Alexis de Tocquevillle wrote were more afraid of being isolated than being wrong. She has continued to report on the war waged by her government with courage and consistency. What sort of dark and unimaginable world would we inhabit if 'traitors' like Anna Politkovskaya were to do the 'patriotic' thing and support her government's slaughter of civilians?



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