Despite murders, Moscow newspaper hopes to soldier on

by Anna Arutunyan. Moscow News

The editorial office of beleaguered opposition newspaper Novaya Gazeta - five of whose staff members and journalists have been killed or died in mysterious circumstances in the last eight years - nestles in one of central Moscow's oldest districts, on Potapovsky Pereulok, where its cosy, Stalin-era building seems to extol the same perseverance with which Soviet dissidents fortified themselves.

The paper's editor, Dmitry Muratov, thought hard about closing the paper in 2006, when its most prominent investigative reporter, Anna Politkovskaya, was gunned down outside her apartment. He thought about it some more, colleagues say, after the brutal slaying in Moscow last month of human rights lawyer Stanislav Markelov and Novaya Gazeta junior reporter Anastasia Baburova.

Now, three weeks later, the newspaper is grimly soldiering on, continuing the work of Politkovskaya and other slain reporters.

One source of hope for editors and journalists came last week, when President Dmitry Medvedev spent an hour talking with Muratov and Novaya Gazeta co-owner Mikhail Gorbachev about the security problems journalists face. When Muratov brought up the issue of shutting down the paper because working there was so dangerous, Medvedev reportedly told him that it was out of the question.

"There isn't a single article that is worth the life or the health of a journalist," said Vitaly Yaroshevsky, Muratov's deputy and the paper's social affairs editor. "But we still continue to do it."

He recalls that staff were astonished when Medvedev's press secretary, Natalya Timakova, called Muratov to invite him to a meeting with the president. They expected that the meeting would either be cancelled or cut short - perhaps three minutes of soundbites, handshakes and photo ops. Instead, Yaroshevsky said, an interview that was planned for a 40-minute time slot ran to over an hour.

After several years of the authorities doing little or nothing to protect journalists' safety and prevent hate crimes, the Kremlin meeting was a welcome surprise, Yaroshevsky said. "The president is sincerely concerned about the things that were discussed at the meeting," he added.

And while that signal comes much too late, it is undoubtedly a positive one, he said.

Getting hold of Muratov for more than the briefest snatches of conversations was practically impossible this week, as he was literally running in and out of his office on his way to a court hearing on Politkovskaya's murder that lasted well into the evening.

He described his talk with Medvedev warmly in his editor's column, but with a sadness suggesting that the gesture should have come sooner.

"Medvedev, I thought, was very moved by the fact that Stas and Nastya were so young," he wrote. "He said to us, here we are, three people who lived a while and know our risks - but it's particularly painful for the young. Gorbachev said to Medvedev, ‘This and other sincere words could have come much sooner.' And Medvedev replied: ‘Mikhail Sergeyevich, I understand, but I didn't want any interpretation of my words to affect the investigation.'

"I don't know which of the presidents is right," Muratov wrote. "Perhaps both presidents. Perhaps only one of them."

In a corner of the office's conference room, just below the ceiling, hang photographic portraits of everyone associated with the paper who died in the line of duty.

Igor Domnikov, who reported on corruption, was beaten to death outside his home in 2000. Editor and former State Duma deputy Yury Shchekochikhin died in 2003 in mysterious circumstances, of allergy-like symptoms that colleagues attributed to poisoning. Politkovskaya, who wrote about human rights abuses by federal and local forces in Chechnya and ran a virtual help center out of her office, was gunned down outside of her home in 2006. Now, it was Markelov, a lawyer who worked for the paper and whose clients included Chechens and environmentalists, and Baburova. To date, only the murderers of Domnikov are behind bars. But those who ordered the hit are still at large, Yaroshevsky says, as are all those involved in the other murders.

If law enforcement isn't effectively reprehending the killers and preventing other slayings, then one option is for journalists to arm themselves. This was proposed last week by one of the paper's shareholders, billionaire and former State Duma deputy Alexander Lebedev. But most of the paper's journalists didn't take to the idea.

"Of course I'm against it," Yaroshevsky said, citing journalism charters that forbid reporters to bear arms. But Nadezhda Prusenkova, who is responsible for public relations at the paper, frames self-defense as a much wider issue.

"There are statistics that say that weapons helped an assault victim survive in 5 per cent to 7 percent of cases," she said. "Our own correspondent in Sochi, Sergei Zolovkin, was attacked by a hitman. He drew his gun and the hitman ran away. If there is a chance to save lives, we should do it. It's more than just protecting journalists. The problem is bigger. It's a symptom of the state."

Journalists at the paper shudder at the moral burden carried by an editor who sends a reporter on a dangerous assignment. There is no consensus on the right choice, but privately, journalists choose perseverance. The tiny office of the paper's investigation department, where Politkovskaya used to sit, still has her books and calendars.

Her desk is now occupied by Dmitry Shkrylyov.

"We all decided we would sit here and continue to work because it was Anna who brought us to this paper in the first place," says Shkrylyov's wife and colleague, Daria Pylnova. Letters still pile up from people seeking help, and rather than turning the area into a shrine or museum, colleagues opted to continue where Politkovskaya left off, in whatever way they could.

Like several of her colleagues, she sees something hopeful in the president's high-profile interest in the paper.

"That plant by the window - it was Anna's," Pylnova said. "After her death, it started withering. But now it's come back to life, and there are new branches." n


Igor Domnikov - journalist. Murdered in 2000. Two killers given long prison terms in 2007, but investigation later reopened.

Yury Shchekochikhin - editor. Died in July 2003, poisoning suspected. Murder investigation opened in April 2008.

Anna Politkovskaya - journalist, shot dead in October 2006. Ten suspects arrested in August 2007, but later several were released. Investigation ongoing.

Stanislav Markelov - lawyer, and Anastasia Baburova - journalist. Both shot dead in Moscow in January 2009. No suspect identified, investigation ongoing

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The media's job is to interest the public in the public interest. -John Dewey