March 3, 2023 | FEATURES | By Zeke Lloyd
“October 7, 2006. Our journalist, Politkovskaya, was killed in her own stairwell in her own apartment complex. Her killer left five bullets into her,” said Dmitry Muratov, a Russian journalist, as he detailed the death of one of his reporters at the hands of Putin’s government.
Muratov was the Editor-in-Chief of Novaya Gazeta, a Russian newspaper which has lost six reporters to extrajudicial killings since 2000. Muratov suspects Chechen assassins are responsible for the beatings, stabbings, shootings, and poisonings, although the poison used on one writer indicates the killing was ordered by the Russian Federal Security Service.
The University of Colorado, Colorado Springs hosted Muratov on the night of Tuesday, Feb. 27. I wanted to write a story for the newspaper. I decided to go.
I don’t know if I still want to be a journalist.
Admittedly, it’s an odd time for that doubt to set in. I suspected it might happen eventually, but I thought it would take longer for me to have second thoughts. After all, I already overcame the initial list of reasons not to go into the field.
First and foremost, the industry is incredibly volatile. In ten years, who knows what the day-to-day work of a journalist will look like? Maybe journalist won’t even be an occupation. And even in the short-run, jobs are hard to come by. If you do manage to land a job at a newspaper right after college, your initial salary isn’t going to compare well against fellow Colorado College graduates.
I’m an economics major. If I went down the journalistic path, I’d soon be in a distant tax bracket from the people I sit next to in class.
None of that discouraged me though. I had it all figured out. So I gave the same answer whenever a professor, friend, or distant family member asked my plans were after school.
“I’ll go abroad,” I’d say. “For the first few years, I’ll freelance. I want to be somewhere where there aren’t many journalists.” That was the trick. It had to be. There are so many places in the world without a large reporter presence. And that area is only growing.
In July of 2020, The New York Times moved one-third of its Hong Kong staff to Seoul. Apple Daily, a Chinese newspaper, shut down in June of 2021. Another newspaper in the region, Stand News, shut down in December of the same year.
So much news. Not enough newspapers. What a perfect niche.
I wasn’t ignoring the underlying trend. I knew I would one-day have to face the ugly question: what happens to journalists in a nation with exclusively state-run media?
Honestly, a part of me was drawn to the danger of those places. The soon-to-be-bankers next to me in economics classes would move to New York, Miami, or San Francisco. They’d enjoy a warm, cozy domestic life. I’d be abroad, interviewing despots and disseminating the word of the common citizen, striving to uphold the pillars of liberty through a free press. I was full of hope, eager to pay the price of democracy.
In the back of my mind, though, I knew I was foolhardy. I am no Indiana Jones. Long ago, when I was first pondering the dangers of reporting inside a dictatorship, I wrote down a quote in my journal. I later found out it’s from a book by Margaret Weiss. “Hope is the denial of reality,” wrote Weiss. “It is the carrot dangled in front of the draft horse to keep him plodding along to reach it.” I knew the carrot wouldn’t last forever.
“Today’s event is a significant one,” said Chancellor of UCCS Venkat Reddy as he introduced Muratov. “It gives us the opportunity to recognize that freedom of speech can be a concept that you should not take for granted. Societies with democratic ideals are well served when journalists are permitted to go about their work freely.”
At the sound of his words, pride flooded through me. Journalism, the fourth pillar of democracy. And I was about to learn what that meant, straight from the horse’s mouth. But that’s not what I heard.
“I don’t agree with those words of great bravery that are ascribed to journalists in general and to me in particular,” Muratov said in his first remarks of the night. He spoke through a translator, but he addressed his comments to the audience as though we could all understand his every word. He went on to tell the story of a Ukrainian girl whose home was destroyed by a Russian rocket. “She said, ‘God, please spare my life and the life of my country.’ Now that is courage.”
I scribbled in my notebook, marking the time so I could reference it later. What a great quote. When I heard it, I thought it would make a great introduction to my piece.
Schuyler Foerster, a political science expert who taught at the Air Force Academy before coming to Colorado College as a visiting professor, was moderating the event. His initial questions were about history. How did Russia move past the USSR only to fall back into autocracy in less than a decade? How did Putin rise to the top of that system?
So, my notes don’t say much about the first 45 minutes. History lessons don’t make for great articles.
I winced a little bit at minute 48, though.
“My deputy was poisoned. No skin was left on his body. He disappeared in less than a week,” said Muratov, speaking on the death of journalist Yuri Shchekochikhin in 2003. “He was 53 years old at the time, but in the coffin, I saw a 100-year-old man.”
Some people in the audience gasped, almost as though he was showing them a picture of it.
“Do I have to say that [his] murderers were never found?”
Another gasp, but this time with a little less surprise. People saw that coming.
“October 7, 2006. Our journalist, Politkovskaya, was killed in her own stairwell in her own apartment complex. Her killer put five bullets into her,” said Muratov. She and Shchekochikhin were among the six killed by Russian agents.
There was silence this time. No one gasped. It was becoming real now.
I knew then. That quote would start my story. I wasn’t going to write about young journalists. I wasn’t going to pass on advice to eager-eyed students who are determined to charge headlong into Russia and China, armed with a microphone, laptop, and VPN.
I was going to write about what I always ignored, what I continue to understand on only a basic, fundamental level: the value of a journalist. Not their importance as heroes of free expression, but their role as pawns for dictators to abduct, imprison, and kill.
Throughout history, countless journalists have served the same function as a canary in a coal mine: once they’re dead, it’s time to consider how safe everyone is. Except canaries don’t swarm to mines.
In Taiwan, where Chinese invasion remains a daily threat, 74 new journalists and 46 new media organizations have arrived in the last two years. Despite new precautions taken by journalists in the area, China continues to detain more reporters than any other country. And while it is difficult to find the number of reporters now working in Ukraine, Reporters Without Borders reports that eight have been killed so far.
Figures that I knew and ignored for so long. Until, on Tuesday night, a Russian journalist turned statistics into stories.
I disagree with Muratov. In my mind, journalists like him are some of the bravest people among us.
I just don’t know if I am fit to be among them.