'Too Brave' -- Journalist's Apparent Political Murder

Journalists in Russia seem to be facing a very difficult choice. If they are true to their profession and report on the truth they are increasingly more likely to lose their lives in the process.

Russia's most outspoken journalist was silenced on a Saturday afternoon in the elevator of her central Moscow apartment block. She was the 13th journalist killed since President Vladimir Putin came to power six years ago.

"She was not just a political journalist," political opposition leader Grigory Yavlinksy said after Politkovskaya's funeral service on Tuesday. "She was a real political opponent [of the Kremlin], and this was a political murder."

Anna Politkovskaya, 48, was gunned down as she returned home from the grocery store.

Her killer -- still at large -- shot the Novaya Gazeta reporter twice in the heart, once in the shoulder, and then put the final shot in her head before tossing the gun next to her slumped body.

Politkovskaya was a constant critic of the Kremlin and was renowned for her hard-hitting reports on human rights abuses in war-torn Chechnya.

Her murder underscores the dangers facing the media in Russia today.

The Committee to Protect Journalists ranks it the third most dangerous place after Iraq and Algeria, and has labeled Putin "an enemy of the press."

"The dangers that had threatened people working in this sphere [of journalism] became more real after her murder," said Masha Zaitseva, 22, a lawyer in Moscow.

"It is evident that nothing is changing for the better. This incident … reflects the situation just as it is here. There isn't [freedom of the press in Russia]. There can't be any debate about that," Zaitseva said.

Politkovskaya's influence was such that people who fear independent journalism in Russia could die with her.

"Our Western colleagues often asked, 'Is there freedom of the press in Russia?' to which we answered, 'We have Politkovskaya,'" said Paul Gutiontov, the secretary of the Russian Union of Journalists. "Now we can't say that."

It is not just native Russian journalists who have been targeted.

In 2004, American Paul Klebnikov, the editor of the Russian edition of Forbes magazine, was shot dead leaving his central Moscow office. The case remains unsolved.

Russian TV media, the source of news for 85 percent of the population, is almost entirely state owned.

Rossiya and Channel One typically begin each newscast with a report on Putin's daily activities -- kissing children, opening construction sites and churches.

Six years ago, Russians were able to tune into opposition voices on NTV, a privately owned channel. That ended in 2001, when the state gas company, Gazprom, took control of the station, bringing it into line with Putin programming.

Television coverage was pivotal in the last parliamentary elections; pro-Putin parties were given disproportionate amounts of air time. They gained two-thirds of the 450 seats in the State Duma, giving Putin a rubber-stamp parliament.

Many of the country's leading newspapers, though more openly critical of authorities, have been bought up by Kremlin-friendly businessmen.

There are two small beacons of hope: Vedomosti, a business newspaper owned by the Wall Street Journal and the Financial Times, and, Novaya Gazeta, Politkovskaya's paper.

Their total circulation, along with a few local independents, is less than 500,000 -- "a drop in the ocean" of Russia's potential 143 million readership, says Alexei Simonov, president of Glasnost Defense Foundation in Moscow.

Former Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev, a 10 percent shareholder in Politkovskaya's newspaper, called her murder "a blow to the entire democratic, independent press."

The paper has offered a reward of nearly $1 million for information leading to the capture of her killers and whoever ordered the murder.

"There has been no deterioration" to freedom of speech in Russia since Putin came to power, Vladislav Surkov, the deputy chief of the presidential staff, told reporters last month.

Supporters of the Kremlin blame any criticisms of their government's handling of the media on an anti-Russian bias in the Western press.

Putin has not publicly addressed the Russian people about the murder, a move that has fueled resentment here.

The day after Politkovskaya's murder, hundreds gathered in a central Moscow square to express their outrage at what they said was the government's lack of response to the killing of one of the country's best-known journalists.

The Kremlin released a statement on Monday stating that Putin had assured President Bush in a phone call that the country's prosecutors would bring Politkovskaya's killers to justice.

At a meeting with German Chancellor Angela Merkel in Dresden, Germany, where Putin once served as a KGB officer, the Russian president called it an "unacceptable crime."

"Her influence on political life in the country was extremely insignificant in scale," Putin said.

Putin went on to say that the public fallout after her murder had done more to harm the reputation of Russia than the critical articles she wrote about the current regime.

Her followers took offense to his comments.

"If her stories weren't dangerous, she wouldn't have been killed. There wasn't anything else to kill her for. This means her stories carried weight," said Gutiontov of the Russian Union of Journalists.

Politkovskaya's reports on the atrocities of Russia's war with the southern state of Chechnya won her numerous international reporting awards and enemies.

This week, Novaya Gazeta published the report she was working on before her death. The report detailed alleged torture by Russian security forces in Chechnya.

She said that she had received several death threats.

In September 2004, she suddenly fell ill after drinking tea on a plane as she flew to cover the school hostage siege in Beslan.

She later said that she had been poisoned to keep her from covering the event.

"You can't do what she did here in Russia. You just can't without finding trouble for yourself," said Nina Shumilina, 56, a doctor in Moscow. "She was probably too brave."

Who, if anyone, will follow in her footsteps remains to be seen, and they will have to wear big shoes.

Politkovskaya was the third journalist from Novaya Gazeta to be killed since the breakup of the Soviet Union in 1991.

"No one can do it like she did. But we'll try to work harder as she's no longer with us. I am sure the journalists haven't surrendered to intimidation," said Lyudmilla Alexeyeva, the head of the Moscow Helsinki human rights group