The head of the State Export-Import Bank of Ukraine, Yevhen Metsher, announced he was stepping down pending an investigation of an assault on RFE/RL journalists during an interview with him in Kyiv. Angered by the reporter's questions, Metsher instructed security guards to take their cameras and video cards. The guards thought they had deleted the content, but the video was later recovered and published. It has sparked a police investigation and outrage in the country, including from President Volodymyr Zelenskiy's office.
Wednesday 6 October 2021
Natasha Zotova was in ninth grade when Anna Politkovskaya, a pathbreaking investigative journalist at the independent newspaper Novaya gazeta, was shot dead in her Moscow apartment building on October 7, 2006.
"Soon afterward, Novaya gazeta began to appear in our mailbox," Zotova, who went on to work at the newspaper and now works for the BBC, wrote on Facebook during a recent virtual flash mob in which journalists described their path to the profession and their concerns about the state of Russian journalism under President Vladimir Putin. "Later my mother told me that when she heard about the murder, she became very angry: 'I wanted to do at least something.'"
So she subscribed to the newspaper, from which the teenage Natasha learned about violently suppressed demonstrations, falsified elections, and other aspects of life under Putin that rarely made it onto state television. And her dream of following Politkovskaya's footsteps to Novaya gazeta was born.
Politkovskaya was 48 when she was killed on Putin's 54th birthday. In a career that featured death threats and a purported poisoning attempt, she gained a reputation for her humane coverage of human rights violations, particularly in the North Caucasus republic of Chechnya, and her outspoken criticism of Putin.
"We are hurtling back into a Soviet abyss, into an information vacuum that spells death from our own ignorance," she wrote in her 2004 book Putin's Russia. "All we have left is the Internet, where information is still freely available. For the rest, if you want to go on working as a journalist, it's total servility to Putin. Otherwise, it can be death, the bullet, poison, or trial -- whatever our special services, Putin's guard dogs, see fit."
Fifteen years after her death, Putin remains firmly in control of Russian politics, and journalists say Politkovskaya's assessment of the situation for independent journalism was on the nose.
"Practically every day we get news of repressions against whole outlets or individual journalists," Sofya Rusova, co-director of the independent Union of Journalists and Media Workers, told RFE/RL. "Ten years ago, an outlet wrote about torture within the Interior Ministry. Within two days, all the advertisers -- down to a mattress dealership -- had torn up their contracts. Now this happens much more quickly.
"Over the last decade, the situation has changed a lot," she added. "Now they pass new repressive laws practically every week."
Vladimir Solovyov, chairman of the Russian Union of Journalists and a member of the advisory presidential council on human rights and civil society, told RFE/RL that he signs letters to law enforcement agencies in support of journalists under legal assault "almost every day."
Among the laws adopted in recent years are the so-called "foreign agent" laws, the law on undesirable organizations, and laws purportedly aimed to combat "extremism" -- all of which have been used in an accelerating campaign to vilify or shut down independent media and civil society organizations. Many of the Internet-based media outlets that Politkovskaya considered Russia's last hope have been targeted, driven from the country, or forced to shut down in just the last few months. Individual journalists have been designated "foreign agents," jailed, or driven abroad.
"According to our lawyers, whenever a media outlet or journalist is designated a 'foreign agent,' there is no explanation for why that was done," Solovyov said. "No facts are presented…. This, of course, is of great concern to journalists because all of us, most likely, had some contact with foreign colleagues and many have received honoraria from foreign media."
"I'm glad that my mother hasn't lived to see what has happened lately," Zotova, who worked at Novaya gazeta from 2010 until 2017, wrote at the end of her flash-mob post. "At least she doesn't have to worry about becoming the mother of a 'foreign agent.'"
In his post for the flash mob -- which was created to popularize the Russian-language hashtag for "banned profession" (#запрещенная_профессия) -- Meduza journalist Pavel Borisov outlined how the environment for Russian journalism has changed since Politkovskaya's killing:
In 2008, he said, an honest journalist could find a job in "a private media company with ethics and standards." By 2011, he said, such a journalist had to find a private media company with ethics and standards and an owner that has not been co-opted. In 2014, that journalist had to find an outlet that was registered abroad and had an owner insulated from pressure. By 2018, he or she had to find work with "a foreign media outlet like the BBC or Radio Liberty." By 2020, that journalist had to create their own media vehicle via a blog, a YouTube channel, or something similar. But by 2021, Borisov wrote, such a journalist "was screwed."
Nikolai Podosokorsky, a media analyst and member of the St. Petersburg PEN Club, said the Russian government's assault on freedom of the press has not just targeted journalists and media outlets but also the civil society organizations and activists that might otherwise defend them.
"Now there are nominally many organizations, associations, and public movements," he said. "But, in reality, we see that those who really defend human rights…are attacked, how they are given various labels, from 'foreign agents' to 'undesirable' organizations. This is really our shared tragedy."
Galina Arapova, a St. Petersburg media lawyer, agreed, saying that court hearings in media cases "rarely last more than 10 or 15 minutes."
"That is why the only hope for journalists is to defend their rights through the European Court of Human Rights," Arapova told RFE/RL.
Denis Kamalyagin, editor in chief of the newspaper Pskovskaya gubernia in Pskov and one of the first Russian journalists to be added to the 'foreign agent' list in December 2020, told RFE/RL that Russian society has been far too passive in the face of the ongoing repressions.
"They are ready to demand that an opposition lawmaker defends their rights, but they won't defend him," Kamalyagin said. "They are ready to demand that the media write the truth and defend them, but they are not ready to defend the media. That is our society. Unfortunately, we are reaping the fruits of our communist history."
Nadezhda Isayeva is a journalist for Novaya gazeta who also wrote a short essay for the press freedom virtual flash mob in August in which she lamented the destruction of reputable media outlets and the virtual expulsion of talented journalists.
"Independent journalism is really becoming a banned profession," she wrote on Facebook. "When you hand in a story, you always wonder if they might not come and search your office or open a criminal case against you…. But then you pull yourself together and get back to work.
"There has to be someone in the country with the courage to write the truth. At Novaya gazeta, I sit in the office where Anna Politkovskaya worked. Every time I look at her photograph, I understand that independent journalism is an important value for which we must fight. Because if we don't, who will?"
RFE/RL's Russian Service contributed to this report.
About This Blog
"Watchdog" is a blog with a singular mission -- to monitor the latest developments concerning human rights, civil society, and press freedom. We'll pay particular attention to reports concerning countries in RFE/RL's broadcast region.