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Russia31 October 2006

Interview with Novaya Gazeta deputy editor Vitali Yaroshevski on Anna Politkovskaya: “Many people saw her as their last hope”

Reporters Without Borders (RSF): Is there anything new in the investigation?

Vitali Yaroshevski: The investigation is continuing, so I cannot make any comments.

RSF: Are you cooperating with the police?

VY: Yes, our journalists are cooperating with the police. Unfortunately, we have experience in this, as we have lost three journalists, Igor Domnikov and Yuri Shchekochikhin as well as Anna Politkovskaya. Igor Domnikov’s killers were found thanks to our help.

RSF: This was not the first attack on Anna Politkovskaya, was it? Was she receiving threats?

VY: There had already been attacks and she had been getting many threats. The first attack came after a series of articles about the Omon [special troops] from Khanti-Mansisk [a city in eastern Siberia] operating in Chechnya. She wrote an article saying these militiamen kidnapped and tortured men. It was published in Novaya Gazeta. Thereafter, one of the characters involved, an officer called Lapin whose nickname in Chechnya was “Cadet,” began threatening to kill her. She was given protection. We even persuaded her to go into hiding abroad, and she lived in Vienna for a while. This “Cadet” was found and was sentenced to 11 years in prison. But he later got a pardon and was released, I think.

The second attempt to kill Anna was in 2004, during the Beslan hostage crisis. She immediately jumped on a plane to go there while it was still going on. She had her own idea of how the crisis might be resolved. But on the way from Moscow to Rostov [you had to go via Rostov as there was no direct flight], someone tried to poison her. The doctors only just managed to save her.

RSF: Do you think here murder is linked to a particular article?

VY: I think it was the result of her journalistic work, but also her public activities. After her murder, we reprinted her articles and realised she had written 511 for us since 1999 [when she began writing for Novaya Gazeta]. Most of them were about very serious issues. She affected the interests of influential and dangerous men. She did not just cover crimes in a general fashion, She gave names, places and figures.

RSF: You mentioned her public activities. What was she doing?

VY: She was a human rights activist recognised by the Russian Association of Human Rights Activists and abroad. She devoted a lot of her time to this. Sometimes her workday was essentially taken up with this. Mothers whose sons had died in the war or in the army came to this office. Also fathers who had lost their families, completely helpless refugees. They came to see Anna as if she was a saviour. They saw her as their last hope. And she helped them. This is what her public activities were about.

RSF: You represent a newspaper that is very critical of the government. How would you describe the situation of press freedom in Russia?

VY: Very difficult, of course. The murder of a journalist like Anna Politkovskaya is an enormous blow to free expression. If you can talk of free expression.

RSF: Do you mean that freedom of speech does not exist in Russia?

VY: It almost doesn’t exist. But you see, our newspaper exists and I am answering you questions. So it does exist, all the same. But to make a comparison, it has little in common with the freedom of expression that journalists enjoyed in Russia ten years ago. Look at the national TV stations. They are under the Kremlin’s direct control. It bothers me, but that’s how it is. The government watches the TV stations very carefully. Because TV had and still has a great deal of influence over the Russian public.

RSF: On the one hand, there is the state monopoly of television, which does not criticise the government. On the other had, there are print media journalists who get killed. Is the government scared of them?

VY: I don’t have the impression that the government is scared of us. Because, objectively, our voices are not very strong. It is virtually impossible to see or hear Novaya Gazeta journalists on the air. The TV stations get orders - don’t mention, don’t quote and don’t invite this journalist or that one. If you see two Novaya Gazeta journalists on TV on one day, it is an exceptional event. I don’t know if the government is afraid of us, but it definitely keeps an eye on us. It reads us, it watches us. In a more civilised country than ours, a hundred articles like those Anna wrote would have sufficed to bring about changes at the government’s highest level. But nothing like that happens here. Northeast, Kursk, Beslan... It’s just the dog barking at the passing caravan. That is the principle here.

RSF: Could you comment on the government’s and civil society’s reactions to this murder?

VY: There are always two societies in Russia. One of them is the society that goes to Anna’s funeral. We have received an enormous number of messages of condolences from all over Russia. Not to mention the support of journalists. My colleagues and I have been getting calls constantly for the past two weeks. They ask us for comments and so on. All the Russian TV stations were at the funeral. But at the same time, journalists do not get government protection and much of the population is indifferent.

RSF: Does this indifference surprise you?

VY: We have no civil society. You know, there is no compassion, no solidarity. The war in Chechnya has been going on since 1994, but I do not recall any big, mass demonstrations. I do not recall people taking to the streets after Beslan. We organised a rally on Vassilevski Spusk [Red Square] and managed to get 200 people to come. I was there. I heard the conversations. Someone said: “If I had not come, my salary would have been cut.” Or “They promised to extend my holidays by three days if I came.” No one seemed to remember that more than 300 people had been killed, half of them children. But this contempt for human life brought hundreds of thousands of people on to the streets in Rome. All those people went with their children and their candles... Do you see where Rome is and where Beslan is? Where Italy is and where Russia is? This lack of reaction in Russia is significant.

RSF: Do you think Anna Politkovskaya’s murder will be solved?

VY: We have experience in criminal investigations. Igor Domnikov’s murderers were found. That was also a political murder. He wrote about the corruption of governors. There is no doubt his murder was commissioned politically. And we will do everything possible to ensure that the murderers and those who ordered the murder are brought to trial. Novaya Gazeta’s shareholders have promised a reward of 24 million rubles for information about the instigators and perpetrators of Anna Politkovskaya’s murder. And we think this could work. We will not give up hope. Anna was working on her journalistic investigations, some of them quite terrifying, right up until the end. We will pursue this investigation to the end, too.

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