Russia increasingly seems less safe for independent journalists and activists. A whole series of incidents has caused several reporters and criticists of President Vladimir Putin to flee the country over the past year. Meanwhile, the government exercises restraint. In most occasions, the authorities do not even comment on the attacks and threats.
Muzzling Kremlin critics
Yulia Latynina, a Russian journalist and host of a weekly political show on the pro-opposition radio station Ekho Moskvy, already left the country in September, after she was threatened and attacked in several incidents. Last year, a man with a motorcycle helmet threw a bin filled with faeces at her. The police investigated the incident, but nobody was tried. In July, an unidentified gas circulated her house in western Moscow that resulted in noxious flames. Police officers could not give much details about the situation, except to say she was never in peril. On 3 September, Latynina’s car went up in flames, which was not an accident. ‘’It became clear that the situation is a lot more serious than we imagined,’’ Latynina said. It was not the first time Latynina fled Russia. She left the country in March 2015, after it was said she was mentioned on a death list which included other Kremlin critics.
Independent media outlets have long been criticised by Kremlin supporters. In early October, state television station Rossia-24 TV said during a program that Ekho Moskvy must be paid for ‘’destabilising society’’ ahead of the upcoming presidential elections. Tatyana Felgengauer, also journalist and deputy editor-in-chief at Ekho Moskvy, was accused of being an agent of the West. She was stabbed in the throat by a man on 23 October. According to the police, the suspect is a madman, who told them he had been in ‘’telepathic contact’’ with the journalist for five years. The Trade Union of Journalists and Media Workers said in a statement Rossia-24 TV was partly to blame for the attack, in contributing to an atmosphere of hate towards independent journalists. Felgengauer’s colleague Ksenia Larina left Russia a few days after the attack, following a broadcast hosted on a state television channel in which journalist and prominent pro-Kremlin media figure Vladimir Solovyov slammed the station.
‘’I took the decision to evacuate Ksenia Larina, and she will leave the country for at least six months, until she is guaranteed safety, because the next stab in the throat might come after the program by Solovyov. There is no other way for me to protect my journalists,’’ editor-in-chief of Ekho Moskvy, Alexei Venediktov, said.
Not only employees of Ekho Moskvy are targeted. Head of prisoner rights group Russia Behind Bars, Olga Romanova, fled to Germany on 8 November, out of fear that she would not get a fair trial. The activist was found guilty of stealing state funds by Russia’s Federal Corrections Service, after her office was investigated in June.
Due to the growing hostile ‘atmosphere of hatred’ in the country and a lack of interference by the Kremlin, some independent media outlets have decided to defend themselves. For example, editor-in-chief of Russia’s biggest opposition newspaper Novaya Gazeta, Dmitry Muratov, said he will arm his personnel with traumatic weapons, which fire rubber bullets. ‘’Do you want people to fight, stab [journalists] and know that these [journalists] are defenceless and unarmed? Neither the authorities nor law enforcement will stand up for them,’’ Muratov said on 24 October, a day after the attack on Felgengauer. Spokeswoman of the newspaper, Nadezhda Prusenkova, also stated journalists have the right to self-defence. However, she emphasised that Muratov’s comments were ‘’more an attempt to draw attention to the complexity of the situation than a declaration that Novaya Gazeta journalists will carry weapons from now on.’’
The brutality and careful planning of the recent incidents have raised the question to which extent the Kremlin is involved. First of all, it is suspicious that only opposition-minded journalists and activists have been targeted. Moreover, the authorities have been reluctant to comment on the attacks and acts of intimidation. President Vladimir Putin called the man who stabbed Felgengauer a ‘’sick person’’ without political motives. With respect to the statement of Muratov, Putin’s press secretary only said the journalists had the right to defend themselves just like everyone else. ‘’Anyone can be subject to the attack of a crazy person, unfortunately no one is protected against this. So I don't think it is justified to single out journalists.’’