The murder last week of journalist Khadzhimurad Kalamov outside his office was a chilling reminder of what it's like to live in Vladimir Putin's Russia.

Mr Kalamov was the founder of an investigative newspaper in Dagestan, a turbulent province neighbouring Chechnya. He and his colleagues regularly spoke out about local official corruption. At midnight, having just sent the latest edition of Chernovik to press, he stepped on to the street and was riddled with bullets by a masked gunman.

The 46-year-old knew only too well his life was in danger. A fellow Dagestan reporter was shot in May, and Mr Kalamov's name was on a hit-list of alleged militants who each received notification that they would be eliminated. According to one source he is the fourth journalist in Russia to be murdered in 2011 – that makes at least 40 since 2000, the most famous of whom is Anna Politkovskaya.

Yet despite these grim figures, Russia is low on the list of countries where it can be fatal to be a hack. Topping the league, according to the Committee to Protect Journalists (CPJ), is Pakistan, along with the likes of Iraq, Libya, Mexico and Brazil. The CPJ's global tally of reporters who have been killed directly as a result of their work this year is 44, plus a further 35 whose reason for death has yet to be established. That is marginally higher than last year.

Journalists like Mr Kalamov and Ms Politkovskaya are brave beyond belief. They may appear fearless, but who is truly unafraid of a violent death? Yet these and other writers report the facts regardless of their fear. When Ms Politkovskaya spoke at the Edinburgh Book Festival in 2005, the year before her death, it was clear she knew she might one day be targeted. The same could be said of Pakistani reporter Syed Saleem Shahzad, who was tortured and killed earlier this year after investigating links between Pakistan's military and al Qaeda. Determination to uncover deception, scandal and abuses regardless of personal risk makes heroes of these professionals, and one salutes their courage with awe.

Contrast such figures with those wheeled out lately before the Leveson Inquiry, an unedifying parade of the pompous and the penitent that's costing a small fortune as it investigates press ethics in Britain. The tawdry culture of phone hacking and the hounding of celebrities that's been exposed at certain papers has made the occupation of journalist almost as noxious to the public as that of slave trafficker. No matter, it seems, that ordinary citizens as well as celebs in the UK are already well-protected by stringent privacy and phone hacking laws. Leveson's investigation is a circus, and its lurid revelations detract from the valuable hard work many journalists do.

It's time now to redress the balance, to champion journalists and put pride rather than shame back into the word hack. The Leveson Inquiry has illuminated a venal but small sector of the media. Meanwhile, Mr Kamalov and his formidable peers represent the sort of journalism that can change lives – the sort, in fact, that makes people want to become journalists in the first place.

Naturally, not all reporters can uncover scandal in high office, or put themselves on the front line of wars. But even in the thin soil of Scottish affairs, journalists have a vital role to play, one to which many dedicate themselves. Their purpose, whether covering news or politics, sport or arts, is to break stories and hold the powerful to account.

Scotland may be one of the more civilised countries in the world, but those in authority must still be scrutinised. Who will do this if journalists don't? It doesn't make for popularity, and it can be uncomfortable, though rarely life-threatening. Today, indeed, Scotland's journalists are especially important. This country is effectively a one-party state, with an opposition that needs an injection of steroids before it has any chance of getting to its feet. I'm not saying our Government is corrupt. But if it weren't for the ever-curious, fact-finding reporters one finds on tabloids, broadsheets, radio and TV, who can say what those in power might try to get away with.