Moscow: After 72 hr silence & phone call with Dubya, Putin pledges Politkovskaya Investigation Print E-mail

 "Putin was elected by the population of Russia and not by President Bush,"

Oleg Panfilov, Head of the Center for Extreme Journalism, a press rights watchdog, October 9 2006

^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^
Tuesday, October 10, 2006 Issue 3515. Page 1.

Putin Promises Politkovskaya Investigation

By Catherine Belton and Oksana Yablokova
Staff Writers
  

People rallying at the Russian Embassy in Helsinki late Sunday to call for a full investigation of Politkovskaya's killing (Marja Airio / AP)
 
President Vladimir Putin vowed Monday to track down the killers of Anna Politkovskaya, while her colleagues at Novaya Gazeta pledged to continue her work despite dangers.

In a telephone conversation with U.S. President George W. Bush, Putin said "all necessary efforts will be made for an objective investigation into the tragic death," the Kremlin said.

Putin's statement was his first public comment on the murder of Politkovskaya, a fierce Kremlin critic gunned down in her apartment building Saturday. For nearly two days, Putin remained silent while the leaders of other countries condemned the slaying as a major blow to press freedom.

Journalists and activists said Putin's comments came too little too late and questioned his decision to break two days of silence only during a phone conversation.

"Putin was elected by the population of Russia and not by President Bush," said Oleg Panfilov, the head of the Center for Extreme Journalism, a press rights watchdog.

A spokeswoman for the Prosecutor General's Office declined to comment on the investigation, which Prosecutor General Yury Chaika took under his personal control Sunday. She also declined to confirm a report in Kommersant on Monday that the suspected murderer had a female accomplice.

A surveillance camera in a Ramstore supermarket on Frunzenskaya Naberezhnaya recorded the suspected attacker and a woman in her 30s following Politkovskaya closely as she shopped, Kommersant said.

The suspected attacker also was caught by a camera outside Politkovskaya's apartment building when she returned with her groceries a short time later.

Her colleagues said she had received death threats related to her investigative stories but none in the weeks before her death.

With few new leads emerging Monday, Novaya Gazeta journalists vowed to press ahead with her work. "Of course we will continue to investigate. This is what Novaya Gazeta is built on," said Vyacheslav Izmailov, Politkovskaya's closest colleague at the newspaper, who worked with her on most of her stories about human rights abuses in Chechnya.

"Of course people are going to be frightened, but this will not stop us from doing our job. It's in our blood."

But there are fears that investigative journalists are being squeezed and self-censorship will grow.

"Freedom of speech exists, but the field is narrowing," said Alexei Venediktov, chief editor of Ekho Moskvy radio, one of the few remaining independent news sources in Moscow.

"This killing is a sign not to raise certain subjects: not to raise issues of corruption, not to raise Chechnya and not to raise torture in Chechnya," he said.

 
Camera footage of the suspected killer outside Politkovskaya's building (NTV / AP)
 
"I have overheard our own correspondents in our corridors saying that they need to be careful as a result of this, that they should steer clear of certain subjects."

State Duma Deputy Vladimir Ryzhkov, an independent, said few journalists remained to carry the torch following Politkovskaya's death.

"There is almost no one left to write about what's really happening in Chechnya," he added.

The state takeover of the media, Ryzhkov said, meant most Russians were living in "a complete information blockade."

Igor Yakovenko, head of the Russian Union of Journalists, said the killing would not shake independent-minded veteran journalists but would cause others to exercise self-censorship so as to not infuriate the Kremlin.

Venediktov warned that Politkovskaya's death, coupled with a Moscow police crackdown on Georgian-owned businesses, was contributing to a growing atmosphere of intolerance.

"If people are not tolerant to Georgians, they are not going to be tolerant toward people who think differently, like Politkovskaya," he said.

The crackdown on Georgians is part of an ongoing crisis between Moscow and Tbilisi that was ignited with Georgia's brief arrest of four Russians on spy charges earlier this month.

Izmailov, however, insisted that Politkovskaya would continue to inspire journalists at Novaya Gazeta. He said he and a team of younger journalists would pick up where she had left off and complete an investigation into the suspected misappropriation of budget funds from Chechnya that Politkovskaya had been working on before her death. "The work is continuing, but we are not ready to publish yet," he said.

Coincidentally, American journalist Paul Klebnikov, who was gunned down in Moscow in 2004, also was believed to have been looking into budget misappropriations in Chechnya.

Politkovskaya was also completing an article on torture in Chechnya.

Marianna Maximovskaya, the host of a weekly current affairs program on Ren-TV, widely seen as the only source of independent journalism on the national television, said the killing was unlikely to have the kind of impact on Russian society that the death of journalist Heorhiy Gongadze in 2001 had in Ukraine. Gongadze's death gave rise to mass protests and culminated in the Orange Revolution in 2004.

"Were any of her exposes of or accusations against officials and the military ever investigated? That kind of truth is in demand by a very small part of our society," Maximovskaya said.

She said she did not feel intimidated by Politkovskaya's killing, adding that she felt no pressure from Ren-TV over her shows, which are often critical of Kremlin's policies.

Gongadze's widow, Myroslava, joined global calls Monday for a full investigation. "There has to be some international mechanism to investigate this kind of case. No government is going to investigate really thoroughly this kind of case," she said by telephone from Washington.

Bush urged Russia to conduct a "vigorous and thorough investigation to bring to justice those responsible" for Politkovskaya's murder. He was echoed by German Chancellor Angela Merkel; Thomas Hammarberg, the Council of Europe's Commissioner for Human Rights; United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights Louise Arbour; and others.

A crowd of at least 1,000 people gathered outside the Russian Embassy in Helsinki on Sunday night in a demonstration arranged by the Finnish branch of PEN, the writers association, Helsingin Sanomat newspaper said Monday. The protesters calls for a full investigation into the killing.

Novaya Gazeta on Monday published a special edition commemorating Politkovskaya's work, which had won plaudits for dogged investigations of corruption and human rights abuses in Chechnya. The semiweekly came out with the front-page headline "Anya," a black-framed photo of a smiling Politkovskaya posing at her desk, and a three-column obituary.

A funeral for Politkovskaya will be held at 2 p.m. Tuesday at the Troyekurovskoye Cemetery.

Politkovskaya is the third journalist from Novaya Gazeta to be killed, following Igor Domnikov in May 2000 and Yury Shchekochikhin, the paper's crusading editor, who died after suffering an allergic reaction to an unknown substance in 2003. The newspaper is investigating all three killings.

Staff Writers Anastasiya Lebedev and Peter Savodnik contributed to this report.