An essential element of a free society is a free press.
The guarantee of press liberties is important not because it might make a journalist's job easier.
But because without the freedom to report and write on the activities of those in power, all of a nation's citizens are less free.
In Russia tonight, all Russians are less free because of the assassination of Anna Politkovskaya.
Politkovskaya, perhaps Russia's best-known investigative newspaper reporter — think Bob Woodward in the United States — was shot to death at her Moscow apartment on Saturday.
Politkovskaya's work focused largely on the continuing war in Chechnya and related terrorism, much of it critical of the Kremlin and the military. An editor at her newspaper said that when she was killed, Politkovskaya had been working on a new story about kidnapping and torture in Chechnya.
The story was supposed to be published today.
The Washington Times has more:
Mrs. Politkovskaya had gained recognition at home and abroad for her relentless reporting of human rights abuses in Russia, particularly in Chechnya. She was one of the few remaining journalists in Russia willing to report on abuses in the southern province and openly criticize (Russian President Vladimir) Putin.
She had been repeatedly threatened and had fled to Vienna, Austria, in 2001, before returning to Moscow after several months. She was convinced that she had been poisoned on a flight to cover the 2004 school siege in Beslan, in which more than 330 people died when troops stormed a school held by Chechen rebels.
Mrs. Politkovskaya had said she fell unconscious after drinking a cup of tea during the flight and woke up in intensive care.
Her colleagues in Russia said they have no doubt Mrs. Politkovskaya's killing was connected with her work.
"There can be no other reason she died [than] because of her duties as a journalist. This was a politically motivated killing," said Vitaly Yaroshevsky, a deputy editor at Mrs. Politkovskaya's newspaper, Novaya Gazeta. ...
In a radio interview on Thursday, Mrs. Politkovskaya hinted at the explosive nature of her story, saying she would be appearing as a witness in an abduction and torture case directly implicating the Kremlin-backed prime minister of Chechnya, Ramzan Kadyrov.
Human rights groups have repeatedly accused Mr. Kadyrov's forces in Chechnya of widespread abuses, but Mr. Kadyrov has always denied any personal involvement in torture. In the interview, she called him the "Stalin of our times" and a "heavily armed coward."
Reporters Without Borders, which organized a protest today outside the Russian embassy in Paris, called Politkovskaya "Russia’s democratic conscience."
“Politkovskaya was the symbol of Russian conscience standing up to an autocratic government that gags journalists,” Reporters Without Borders said. “Her condemnation of state terror in Chechnya and her unwavering commitment to press freedom made her a beacon of independent journalism in Russia. "
Washington Post columnist Anne Applebaum wrote today that Politkovskaya's death will undoubtedly cast a chill on Russian journalism — when that is one of the last things Russia needs right now.
There are jitters already: A few hours after news of Politkovskaya's death became public, a worried friend sent me a link to an eerie Russian Web site that displays photographs of "enemies of the people" — all Russian journalists and human rights activists, some quite well known. Above the pictures is each person's birth date and a blank space where, it is implied, the dates of their deaths will soon be marked. That sort of thing will make many, and probably most, Russians think twice before criticizing the Kremlin about anything.
And there is, at the moment, a lot to criticize. With crises brewing in Iran, Iraq and North Korea, few have had time to notice the recent escalation of the political dispute between Russia and Georgia, or to ponder the political consequences of Europe's increasing reliance on Russian gas, or to worry much about minor matters such as the deterioration of press freedom in Russia. Critics of Anna Politkovskaya's writing did complain, on occasion, that her gloom could be overbearing: She was one of those journalists who saw harbingers of catastrophe in every story. Still, it is hard for me not to write about her murder in the same foreboding tone that she herself would have used. It is so much like one of the stories she would have written herself.
The killing may have silenced Politkovskaya, but it also highlights how little real freedom there is in Russia, a supposed democracy.
Putin, a former KGB agent, has not hesitated to use state power to move against his critics and enemies in the media and elsewhere in Russian society.
That is not suggest that Putin or anyone close to him gave the order to kill Politkovskaya — he is slicker than that — but under his rule, Russia has backslid from democracy to autocracy.
He has created a Russia where abuses like the ones Politkovskaya uncovered could happen.
And a Russia where someone like Politkovskaya could be killed for just doing her job, and doing it very well.
Tonight in Russia, a reporter is dead, and a nation is much less free.
Malkin has a roundup of other coverage.