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Threats, attacks on independent voices growing as presidential election looms

A man reads a newspaper as he enters Kievskaya metro station in Moscow, Russia, 17 April 2017
A man reads a newspaper as he enters Kievskaya metro station in Moscow, Russia, 17 April 2017

REUTERS/Grigory Dukor

This statement was originally published on ipi.media on 28 November 2017.

On Oct. 23, 2017, a man stabbed Russian radio host and Ekho Moskvy Deputy Editor-in-Chief Tatyana Felgenhauer in the throat at the radio station's offices in central Moscow. Felgenhauer survived the attack, but only after spending the next few days in a medically induced coma.

Authorities identified the attacker as a Russian-IsraeIi citizen and said they suspected he might be mentally unstable. President Vladimir Putin rejected suggestions that Felgenhauer was targeted because of her reporting, calling the assailant a "sick man". Internationally, the event drew attention to the threats and violence that independent Russian journalists face, with many commentators saying the situation is getting worse, citing increasing polarisation and a violent political climate that encourages attacks.

Ekho Moskvy is well known as one of the few media outlets featuring reports and discussions that are critical of the Kremlin. Like other independent outlets in Russia, Ekho Moskvy has often faced accusations of working for foreign interests and its journalists have been branded traitors and attacked.

The attack on Felgenhauer was preceded by a news report on Russian state television that singled out Ekho Moskvy and Felgenhauer as working against the interests of the Russian state ahead of a presidential election set for March. The station was accused of working with foreign NGOs and Felgenhauer's supporters say she was attacked for her complaints about the conditions that journalists in the country face.

Shortly after the attack, another journalist also working for Ekho Moskvy, Ksenia Larina, left the country. Alexei Venediktov, the station's editor-in-chief, said he asked Larina to leave Russia for her safety.

In September, Novaya Gazeta columnist and Ekho Moskvy radio show host Yulia Latynina decided to flee Russia after unknown assailants set fire to her car. Unknown assailants also attacked her at her home in mid-July and in August 2016 suspected activists of a far-right movement threw faeces at her outside of Ekho Moskvy's studio.

This year, the International Press Institute (IPI) has recorded three journalists' deaths in Russia on its Death Watch, all of whom were possibly targeted for their work. The London-based free expression watchdog Index on Censorship has documented over 30 incidents of physical assault against journalists so far this year.

Although the struggles that remaining independent media face in Russia are nothing new, observers have noted an increase in serious threats and attacks, many of which go unnoticed in the West and even in Moscow.

IPI talked about this increase with Nadezhda Azhgikhina, a long-time journalist who is vice president of the European Federation of Journalists and a member of the Free Word Association, and Russian broadcast and investigative journalist Artem Filatov, a former Ekho Moskvy contributor now working as a freelance journalist in Moscow.


IPI: Many called the recent attack on journalist Tatyana Felgenhauer a "frightening development". Does this mean certain groups are more willing to resort to violence instead of other forms of intimidation?

Azhgikhina: Many define the attack on Tatyana by a man with mental problems as a consequence of aggression and hate speech in society and in the mainstream. It provokes not only with so many obvious words of hate, but with style, intonation and way of presenting news and especially talk shows. [State television is] naming journalists from Ekho as "fifth column", servants for the West, etc.

Filatov: Half a year before the election the situation is getting more complicated and difficult, more attempts are made to stop journalists from doing their work. What we see is that the atmosphere is becoming more intolerable for independent voices.


IPI: Which kinds of groups are usually responsible for or suspected of the intimidation against journalists?

Azhgikhina: Very different [kinds]. According to the monitoring of the Glasnost Defense Foundation, journalists face intimidation on a regular basis in all regions of Russia. Threats are from mostly unknown people, most from right-wing radical groups, or criminals, or groups associated with businesses, regional and local authorities or even law enforcement. There might be businessmen, gangsters and local authorities behind [the threats], but it is very difficult to prove the links. Sometimes local politicians or policemen, or businessmen, call or write online and threaten critical journalists, but not so often. More often threats come from religious radicals.

Filatov: Authorities are very skilful in their campaign against journalists, because they very rarely identify themselves as the ones opposing journalists. Often we can see the traces of people in power.

I don't see many instruments to criticise these politicians or to change their attitudes and actions. As I see it, they have almost limitless power. There are some things they can't do but they are so used to just working with government media, who always have the right, friendly questions. They just no longer face any criticism, and when they see a journalist who goes against them, they are really thinking: "why are they doing this?" This is strange to them, and they see this as kind of a violation of the order of things in Russia.


IPI: Has there been an increase in the harassment and pressure of journalists lately?

Azhgikhina: Yulia Latynina left the country after threats and attacks. Dmitry Muratov, chief editor of Novaya Gazeta, decided to give weapons to his journalists. Those cases are well known. But many journalists in the regions have also been attacked. Attacks and threats have been increasing recently, monitors say. And pressure on critical voices is getting stronger. And impunity is the reason for these new attacks.

Filatov: There are cases of journalists urged to stop their activities which are relatively unknown in the West and even in Moscow. We see this not only in Moscow. For example there is the case of my colleague from St. Petersburg, investigative journalist Sergey Kagermazov, who did several important investigations on the World Cup arena and alleged misconduct of the head of city parliament. In October he was urged to stop his investigations and leave St. Petersburg for a safe place, because a sort of investigation was started against him. Police came to his flat and newsroom, pressuring, and in the end he had to leave.

In Kaliningrad, for example, a journalist is faced with an almost fantastic charge for bribing a head of a local police investigative committee. It would be an unthinkable act to attempt to bribe such a powerful police official. But now the journalist is under arrest.

In St. Petersburg, journalists are quite worried about the future. In Moscow, it is a little different, because the media market is bigger. Still, government control is growing, and independent outlets are trying to hold on to economic and political independence.

If you want to find a job in independent media, it's hard, because there aren't too many places. There are plenty of job openings for state media. So if you don't want to work for them, you won't have a job as a journalist.

You can only avoid pressure if you work for entertainment media. Only then you can relax.


IPI: A lot of the recent cases have involved women journalists: do pressure and threats affect women journalists differently?

Azhgikhina: Women receive around three times more threats than men, and many of these are threats of sexual violence, against themselves and family members and children. Many stopped writing critical texts. Some left the profession. Recent serious cases of threats have been mostly on women journalists. Many don't like women speaking out about anything, and that includes religion and politics.


IPI: What is the role of state television and state-owned media outlets in the harassment of and attacks on independent journalists?

Azhgikhina: State TV and state-owned media are very diverse, and many journalists from the regions facing attacks and intimidation work for local media getting strong financial support of the state or directly owned by governmental structures. Ekho Moskvy gets funds from Gasprom, which is strongly associated with the state. Many journalists of state owned outlets and those associated with the state companies do honest work. But a number of political programs on national TV, broadcasting in prime time, are well known for their aggressive and propagandistic, anti-Western, anti-liberal agenda and approach. And it is really harmful.

Filatov: Felgenhauer was attacked just a week after a very harsh report on Russia 1 TV, which branded Ekho Moskvy as traitors. They used descriptions that definitely put journalists at risk. The problem is not only the depiction of journalists on state television, it's the problem of how they tell the audiences about opposition and any independent institutions. In the stories and narratives of state media, some state news websites, it's like a criminal trial, where journalists are depicted as criminals, evil, problematic, as a threat to Russian democracy and society. Of course it influences some people who think they are now allowed to harm journalists and activists, and they see that they may avoid any punishment for doing that.


IPI: Have there been appropriate reactions from the authorities or politicians to the recent attacks, or are they making the situation worse?

Azhgikhina: Not enough. And it is very dangerous. It is important to investigate all cases of attacks and violence against journalists and bring those responsible to court. These have to be recognised as serious crimes, all threats must be taken seriously. Now they only pay attention to death threats; threats of sexual violence, for example, go more unnoticed.

Filatov: As far as I understand, the situation with [Felgenhauer] is treated seriously and authorities have been helpful. In some other cases, we see different approaches. The biggest problem is the way the cases are investigated: the investigations don't turn up any results and they don't prevent new attacks.

I never received any death threats myself, but I know that my colleagues have. They are not investigated properly. In some cases authorities say that they are not real threats, because they are just on the Internet, just messages. Sometimes these cases are even ignored.


IPI: How do you see the situation developing in the near future?

Filatov: I have mixed feelings about what's happening in Russia. We still have international media in Russia that makes quality content, that have skilled journalists working for them. We also see some media start-ups that have been successful, but at the same time we see a huge decline in journalistic independence. Independent media no longer shapes public opinion. Most worrying is the growing number of threats and attempts to silence journalists.

It's not the end of the story though, and journalists will find a way to react to this. We are not shy people and not easily pressured. I don't feel fear among those journalists who have decided to stay in the profession.

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