Upcoming PBS documentary on importance of journalists

CHICAGO (17 November 2006) - PERHAPS the most chilling moment in "Democracy On Deadline" -- the documentary about the importance of journalism in free societies, airing Tuesday, Nov. 21 on PBS stations -- is not when the camera crew is confronted by nervous Israeli soldiers at a West Bank checkpoint, nor archival footage of child soldiers in Sierra Leone's particularly senseless civil war, firing at each other in a ruined city with automatic weapons that look taller and heavier than the wee combatants.

No, the moment unfolds in the quiet office of Dimitry Muratov, the soft-spoken editor of the independent Moscow daily Novaya Gazeta. The year seems to be 2005, and Muratov is talking in the present tense about his most famous special correspondent.

"Anna Politkovskaya once asked the material question: 'Is journalism worth your life?'" Muratov says. "Anna thinks it is. I don't think it is." He pauses and adds with a faint smile, "This is one of our disagreements."

Anna Politkovskaya was murdered five weeks ago, on Oct. 7, just outside her Moscow apartment in a shooting that had all the marks of a professional hit. She was 48.

She had just finished work on an article documenting torture by the authoritarian government in Chechnya that was installed and is kept in power by President Vladimir Putin's Kremlin. Politkovskaya had angered the Russians and the Chechen rebels with her passionate yet clear-eyed reporting on the tragedy and horror spawned by the war in Chechnya. Her murder was, in a very real way, a do-over: On a plane with Russian state security agents flying to the scene of 2004 Beslan schoolhouse massacre, she was served poisoned tea that sickened her gravely, but failed to silence her.

"Democracy On Deadline" is a bracing reminder of why journalism matters -- and the sometimes harrowing consequences of practicing journalism that matters.

In the documentary, Politkovskaya doesn't talk about the poisoning or the death threats that came with a numbing regularity. Instead, she refers to the other fate that too often awaits journalists. For all the brave coverage of Chechnya in Novaya Gazeta, she says, "The horror lies in (the fact) that we didn't convince anyone."

"Democracy On Deadline" shows journalists around the world taking the same kind of risks for the same kind of outcome. "Nobody's even listening," Gideon Levy, a blunt-writing columnist and correspondent for the Israeli daily Haaretz, says at one point.

But Levy is listening -- and illustrates one of the virtues of this documentary.

In a film that includes some of the best-known bylines in their countries -- including Carlotta Gall of The New York Times, Dana Priest and Dana Milbank of The Washington Post, and Deborah Nelson, Chuck Neubauer and Ken Silverstone of The Los Angeles Times' crack investigative unit -- Levy's segment is by far the longest. We see him questioning the family who lost a son and father in an Israeli air raid. Where we you sitting? What did you see? Where was he standing? Levy's questions go on and on at almost Warholian length, until the viewer understands the care, accuracy and professionalism this Israeli brings to reporting the conflict from the Palestinian experience.

The truth takes perseverance, this documentary reminds us.

Director Cal Skaggs in the production notes says he first wanted to make "Democracy On Deadline," which is part of the PBS "Independent Lens" series, to contrast the international journalists with U.S. reporters.

"When I began in late 2001 to focus on what became "Democracy On Deadline," I was also convinced that we as a country were headed for some tricky times and American journalists weren't asking the hard questions necessary to help us through those times," he says. "So my first motive was to hold up courageous journalists in other countries to contrast with the rather comfortable work and working conditions of American journalists. During the process of making the film, the original motive thickened-as it usually does during development."

And surely reporters like the Post's Priest, seen working the room at a typical Washington conference of blue suits and porcelain coffee cups, are working in greater comfort than Chris Anyanwu, who is released from three years of imprisonment in Nigeria, only to report on her broken land with renewed vigor.

But Priest is working to nail down a story of importance to all the world at that comfortable conference. In November 2005, after the documentary footage was shot, the Post would publish her expose of the secret prisons the U.S. maintained in Europe.

"You are going to give away your democracy if you don't take responsibility for the decisions that are made in your name," she says in the documentary.

It's a sentiment echoed in one way or another by nearly all the journalists from Mexico to Sierra Leone to Russia, though often with the twist that the journalist is trying to help establish democratic values.

At an especially dispiriting time for journalists in America, "Democracy On Deadline" is a tonic -- and a challenge to keep on keeping on.


Mark Fitzgerald mfitzgerald@editorandpublisher.com is E&P's editor-at-large

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