11 October 2008

Courageous journalism

Those are not words we often use in the same sentence on this blog but fear not: this posting is not about British journalists but about an extremely brave Russian (well, half Chechnyan) lady who spoke this evening at the Pushkin House.

Natalya Estemirova is a journalist and a human rights activist who lives in Grozny among the rubble and the severely traumatized people - the ones who have survived the carnage, the bombing, the shelling, the random killings, the kidnappings, the tortures. She does what she can to help them by building up structures that will aid individuals and their families.

Above all, she tries to tell the truth of what has been happening in that country and what is happening in the surrounding Caucasian autonomous republics: Ingushetiya, Dagestan, North Ossetia and, more recently, South Ossetia. The world does not really want to know though, at least, some parts of it are more interested than people in Russia who, according to Ms Estemirova, simply do not want to hear on the rare occasion stories and evidence do get through to them. It is all too difficult.

Natalya Estemirova's great friend, Anna Politkovskaya, was murdered just over two years ago, on October 7, 2006 (coincidentally President Prime Minister Putin's birthday) but she is detemined to continue the good work. Last year she was awarded the first Anna Politkovskaya prize by a rather odd organization called Raw in War (Reach All Women in War).

Some of its work is entirely admirable but its trustees and patrons seem to be the usual assortment of rent-a-quote celebrities, almost entirely from the left and its founder Mariana Katzarova spent more time talking about the war lords in power in Afghanistan because of NATO, who prevent the development of proper democracy and human rights (of which there was such a lot before the NATO invasion) and comparing the West to Russia than on the troubles of the Caucasus.

Ms Estemirova's stories were moving and harrowing. For someone who has supped full of horrors she is remarkably cheerful and determined though full of fury when she talks about President Prime Minister Putin, his protege President Ramzan Kadyrov, Chechnya's dictator in all but name, and the bloody rule of some of the military commandants.

At the same time she also told of the young conscripts, whose lives are very hard and who often try to help the civilians they have to deal with, particularly the children. There was even one commandant who, in a difficult area, did his best to ensure that food came in to the civilians and various problems were sorted out. He asked Estemirova that his story not be published because as soon as his chiefs hear about it they will move him. Eventually, his tour came to an end and so did the relative peace of the area over which he had held sway.

Journalists love to talk about themselves and each other and present each other with various awards. This year the Anna Politkovskaya award was presented by Jon Snow to Malai Joya, the young Afghanistani MP who has been suspended for vociferous criticism of the tribal elders. She is not a journalist but a woman whose courage and human rights activity deserves commendation.

The question is how did Jon Snow feel when stood in the Frontline Club between these two incredibly brave ladies, one of whom risks her life to bring important stories into the open. Did he even stop for a moment and ask himself why it is that he cannot report with honesty, decency and seriousness in the easy world in which he lives?