Is Journalism Worth Dying For?

For AnnaPolitkovskaya, Russia was a grim country—a “managed democracy”governed by brutal leaders and craven bureaucrats, policed by violent andextortionist security services, and reported on only by “servants of thePresidential Administration.” Her crusading, obsessive journalism made hermany enemies, not least inside the Kremlin; she endured beatings, poisoning,and a mock execution; but she did not back down. Murdered in 2006, her killersnever found, Politkovskaya lives on in IsJournalism Worth Dying For?, a collection of her “final dispatches.”

Politkovskaya’s greatestand most dangerous work was done in Chechnya, the functionally lawless region whichforeign and even Russian journalists refused to enter, but to which shereturned more than two dozen times. It is a terrifying place, where anarchicparamilitaries roam the streets with Berettas, politicians hit up citizens forcash, and opponents of the regime are abducted and thrown into jail cells duginto the ground, if they’re not killed with impunity. And there ischaracteristically fearless reporting on the 2002 siege of a Moscow theater byChechen terrorists, during which Politkovskaya attempted to negotiate with themilitants to release hundreds of hostages before Russian authorities gassed thetheater, killing at least 130 people. Politkovskaya argues that federalsecurity services abetted the terrorists, a claim backed up with evidence from theformer spy Alexander Litvinenko—who was himself murdered a few months afterPolitkovskaya, poisoned with polonium at a London sushi joint.

Notall of Politkovskaya’s dispatches make such forbidding reading; there areeasier reports from Paris and Sydney, and even a long and surprisingly tenderessay on her dog. But her enduring importance derives from her refusal tocapitulate despite seemingly unbearable pressure—and, even more basically, hercommitment to rigorous on-the-ground reporting when journalists, even when notfaced with official intimidation, spend more time with PR flacks than sourcesand victims. Upon her death, Lech Walesa mourned her as “a sentinel for truth,” and Condoleezza Rice called her “a heroineof mine”; for the New York Times,she stood as “a symbol of what Russia has become.” Only RamzanKadyrov, the Kremlin-installed gangster president of Chechnya and a key suspectin her murder, was unmoved. “I was not bothered in the slightest by whatshe wrote,” he insisted, “and I have never lowered myself to tryingto settle scores with women.”