Recently, Freedom House, a U.S.-based non-governmental organization,
released its annual survey on freedom of the press. The current report
points to "particularly worrisome trends in the former Soviet Union,
Asia and sub-Saharan Africa."
The study reinforces the message of a new documentary about suppression of the Russian media and the slayings of hundreds of Russian journalists since the fall of the Soviet Union. The film, 211: Anna, focuses on Russian journalist and human rights activist Anna Politkovskaya, who was killed in 2006. She had reported extensively on alleged Russian links to war crimes in Chechnya and was openly critical of Russian President Vladimir Putin.
In the middle of the Beslan school ruins, a former hostage of the school massacre there, in the Beslan town of Chechnya, shows what's left of the school. Five years ago, during a three-day siege, armed Chechens held more than one thousand people, most of them children. The terrorists demanded an end to the war in Checnhya. The Russian government refused negotiations. Hundreds died in the siege and in the Russian military's assault.
The attack features prominently in Paolo Serbandini's documentary 211: Anna. Serbandini offers it as a tragic example of an unyielding Russian government bent on continuing the war.
Dmitry Muratov, editor in chief of the Russian newspaper Novaya Gazeta, says that the Russian regime did not want negotiations to take place.
"It's the norm in our country," he says. "In my opinion, there's a general doctrine that does not consist of liberating the hostages, but of the eliminations of the terrorists."
The film shows how the tragedy bolstered the resolve of journalist Anna Politkovskaya to criticize the Russian government for the ongoing war in Chechnya and for human rights abuses there.
According to the documentary, she had been doing that since the late '90s. In archival footage, she says there was an attempt on her life in 2004. She relates how during a flight en route to Chechnya she was served poisoned tea.
Two years after this interview, in October 2006, Politkovskaya was fatally shot. The perpetrators are still at large. Ella Asoyan, Freedom House program manager on the Caucasus, says Russia today is one of the most dangerous places for journalists and human rights activists.
"Just this year, we saw two absolutely brazen murders in broad daylight in Moscow - of Stanislav Markelov and of Anastasia Baburova," she says. "Both worked on issues of human rights. So, you see, with the rise of impunity towards reporters and journalists in Russia, there is no indication that this trend may be reversing."
The documentary shows that Russians have become apathetic and cynical about the oppression. Just two years after Politkovskaya's death, many do not appear concerned.
One of the people in the street who was asked to comment about Politkovskaya's death, shrugs his shoulders. He tells the interviewer, "You see, we're probably less interested in this story here than you are."
The interviewer counters, "But she was the 211th journalist to be killed after the fall of the USSR."
Then the man on the street replies, "And there was probably the 212th, then the 213th [journalist killed]. What difference does it make?"
211: Anna paints a bleak picture of a country it says is steeped in blood, marred by corruption and stifled by the absence of civil liberties. And although the viewer gets no relief, one is reminded that there are still people willing to risk their lives for the truth.