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For Independent Journalist, Working In Russia ‘Like Living In A Bunker’

Tomsk--RFE/RL contributor Melanie Bachina reporting for Tomsk TV-2. Russia, undated.

Tomsk--RFE/RL contributor Melanie Bachina reporting for Tomsk TV-2. Russia, undated.

RFE/RL correspondent and former Tomsk TV-2 journalist Melanie Bachina speaks about the suffocating atmosphere for journalists who dare to question the Kremlin.

One year after the closure of one of Russia’s oldest independent TV stations, former employees are still paying the price for their work.

The award-wining regional Tomsk TV-2, a station in the western Siberian city of around half a million, aired its last program January 1, 2015. The closure came after Roskomnadzor, the state agency that regulates Russia’s media, withdrew its license, and another official body, the RTRS, later refused to renew the channel’s broadcasting contract. Both agreements were discontinued without explanation and former employees and managers from TV-2, which was known for its editorial independence, believe the decision was politically motivated.

“We didn’t just lose our jobs, we lost our faith in anything changing,” said Melanie Bachina, a former TV-2 reporter and presenter, and long-time RFE/RL Russian Service contributor.

Thousands of people turned out to protest the closure of TV-2, more proof to Bachina and her colleagues that their programs enjoyed popular support. But the mood changed when a local media smear campaign set Bachina and other well-known TV-2 personalities in its sights.

Accusations and Insinuations

“American Servants” read one headline in an article published in the newspaper Tomsk Week that skewered Bachina as a puppet of the West. The author wrote that she, together with RFE/RL, wanted to “overthrow the constitution of Russia and create chaos in the country” by organizing a Russian version of the Euromaidan demonstrations that ousted Ukrainian President Viktor Yanukovych in 2014. An article that appeared in the newspaper in April emphasized the fact of Bachina’s birth in western Ukraine, and accused her of collaborating with the “pro-Bandera” Western media outlet RFE/RL. Stepan Bandera was a World War II anti-Soviet insurgent who is widely regarded in Russia as a Nazi collaborator, while being embraced by far-right nationalist groups in Ukraine. For Russian audiences, the association with Bandara implies fascist sympathies.

“We simply told the story of both sides of the conflict in Ukraine,” said Bachina. “We went to the Maidan and reported what was really happening there. This was shocking for the Russian public because they saw that there were normal people there, not just zombies and Nazis, as was reported by the state media. We also interviewed people who are critical of the Russian government and are not allowed on state channels, and we asked officials uncomfortable questions. We did our job, and for that we were closed.”

Tomsk--RFE/RL contributor Melanie Bachina and colleagues protesting the closure of Tomsk TV-2. Russia, undated.

Tomsk--RFE/RL contributor Melanie Bachina and colleagues protesting the closure of Tomsk TV-2. Russia, undated.

The character attacks against Bachina and her colleagues moved online and continued throughout 2015, taking on a much more sinister tone. A local news website accused her of selling Russian orphans after she produced a video report for RFE/RL about an American family that had adopted a Russian child. (The report was published after Russia banned adoptions by American families.) Another site posted a photo of her that had been digitally altered to add a symbol to her shirtsleeve of the Azov Battalion, originally a volunteer militia that is now a part of the Ukrainian National Guard and that allegedly has ties to far-right nationalist groups.

After the more pernicious stories had circulated online, Bachina was inundated with nasty messages on social media and threatening emails. When she asked the police to investigate the threats, she says she was rebuffed, and in a chilling official response, was informed that she herself wouldn’t be charged with making false accusations…this time.

“I’m not afraid for myself, but I worry about my children,” she said.

Bachina says her former TV-2 colleagues did not escape unscathed either. Around 40 of them were interrogated and charged with unlawful demonstrating after they picked in front of the station to protest the closure. Everyone was fined 30,000 rubles.

Symptom of a Wider Societal Divide

One year on, Bachina believes the frenzy of threats that continues to flood her inbox, as well as the disdain shown by the police to journalists, is reflective of the deepening divisions in Russian society as a result of the country’s foreign policy.

“It’s much worse here now than during the Soviet Union. Society is so overheated, with everyone divided into ‘us’ vs. ‘enemies,’ with family members refusing to speak to each other over differences of opinion on Ukraine and Syria,” she said. “It’s terrifying and you can feel it in the air. I don’t go out much anymore, to shops and places like that, unless I have to.”

The Reporters Without Borders 2015 World Press Freedom Index, which ranked Russia 152 out of 180 countries, down four places from the previous year, noted that in Russia “the climate has become very oppressive for those who question the new patriotic and neo-conservative discourse and, in some regions, local despots have taken advantage of this new climate to step up their persecution of critics.” The report also warned that while the leading TV channels continue to “inundate viewers with propaganda,” independent media outlets are being either “brought under control or throttled out of existence.”

While many former TV-2 journalists have left the profession all together, Bachina continues to contribute regularly to RFE/RL and says she finds strength in her colleagues, as well as in a small circle of local journalists who also continue to report, often for struggling websites.

“We do support each other and we’ll continue to work,” she said. “But to be honest, sometimes it feels like we’re living in a bunker.”

--Emily Thompson/Evgeniya Konovalova