Russian journalists accusing a senior lawmaker of sexual harassment faced criticism and insinuation themselves at a parliamentary hearing this week, including suggestions they may have been part of a conspiracy -- and that one was overly "intrusive" in dealing with her alleged harasser.
The Russian-language news site Meduza obtained leaked audio from the March 21 closed hearing held by a parliamentary Ethics Commission to examine the accusations against Leonid Slutsky, head of the Foreign Affairs Committee in Russia's lower house of parliament, the State Duma.
At least three female journalists have accused Slutsky of making crude, unwelcome advances, including inappropriate touching and attempts to kiss them.
An accompanying transcript of the Ethics Commission hearing published by Meduza shows lawmakers at times joking and chuckling in their interactions with two of Slutsky's accusers -- Darya Zhuk, a producer with independent Dozhd TV, and BBC Russian correspondent Farida Rustamova -- who appeared before the commission.
The commission's decision later to exonerate Slutsky has triggered outrage across the Russian media landscape, with several outlets opting to pull their correspondents from the State Duma.
"Just look at how deputies justify harassment by Slutsky. And this is the Ethics Commission!" the Russian news portal Znak.com said in a March 22 tweet that featured a video fragment from the hearing.
Here's a look at some of the comments, based on the Meduza transcript, from members of the Ethics Commission during its hearing on the accusations against Slutsky.
'A Delicate And Unpleasant Topic'
Early in the hearing, lawmaker Sergei Ivanov -- a colleague of Slutsky's in the Liberal Democratic Party (LDPR) -- said there was an "unhealthy frenzy" surrounding the hearing, noting the "huge number of journalists" outside in the hallway.
Following comments by Zhuk, who accused Slutsky of trying to forcibly kiss and touch her in a Dozhd TV studio in 2014, commission Chairman Otari Arshba requested that lawmakers "not insist on the details" of the accusations.
"In my opinion, there's no need to ask if he approached from the right or kissed on the left cheek -- or didn't kiss at all," Arshba, a member of the ruling United Russia party, said.
Another lawmaker, Yaroslav Nilov of the LDPR, added, "It's a delicate and unpleasant topic."
In one exchange, lawmaker Irina Rodnina -- a United Russia member and former Olympic champion figure skater -- impugned Rustamova's professionalism and used a Russian verb -- "domogatsya" -- that can be translated as "harass" to describe her reporting methods.
Rodnina said she recalled Rustamova being "quite intrusive" in her attempts to get comments from Slutsky about Russian lawmakers' meeting with French right-wing politician Marine Le Pen in Moscow in March 2017 -- the same day that the journalist says Slutsky groped her and tried to kiss her.
"You literally used all means to get information from Slutsky," Rodnina said.
Rustamova responded to Rodnina by saying, "With all due respect, what you call 'intrusiveness' is the kind of job we do, unfortunately."
"I wouldn't call that a job," replied Rodnina, who in 2013 came under fire for a racist tweet she posted about then-U.S. President Barack Obama.
Rustamova said Rodnina had never worked as a journalist. The lawmaker said that she had interacted with journalists for many years and suggested that Rustamova's reporting efforts "isn't a job" but rather a "behavioral pattern."
Rustamova later appeared perplexed when Ivanov, the LDPR deputy, asked whether she had a "boss-subordinate" relationship with Slutsky, saying she didn't understand the question.
"Is there some sort of dependence?" Ivanov asked.
Rustamova noted that she is not a State Duma employee and that "no, Deputy Slutsky is not my boss."
'With Your Consent, It Wouldn't Be Harassment'
At one point Rustamova responded to a question about why she did not immediately report the incident, explaining that nothing similar had ever happened to her and that she did not know what to do.
"You know, when harassment like that happens without my consent and against my will," she said before being interrupted by an unidentified man in the room.
"If it was with your consent, it wouldn't be harassment," the man said, triggering chuckles in the room, according to the Meduza transcript.
"Yes, that's mutual consent," lawmaker Raisa Karmazina of United Russia added.
Aleksandr Karelin, a United Russia parliament member and former Olympic champion wrestler, suggested that the "information storm" surrounding the allegations against Slutsky emerged at a suspicious moment: just ahead of the March 18 presidential election that President Vladimir Putin won in a landslide.
"Was there no synchronization? Everything was so well-orchestrated," Karelin said.
Zhuk said there were no special plans for a campaign. Rustamova said later in the hearing that she and Zhuk only met one another this week, and that she had never met the third accuser -- Yekaterina Kotrikadze of the Russian-language RTVI television company.
'Young Girls' And 'Enemy Media'
Shortly after the exchange with Karelin, an unidentified man is heard addressing Zhuk and Rustamova with a Russian word -- "devochki" -- typically used to refer to young girls.
After that, lawmaker Shamsail Saraliyev echoed Karelin's line of questioning about the timing of the accusations and said that "all of the journalists who have raised this issue today are journalists from the Western media."
"I call them enemy media," Saraliyev said.
While the BBC is a British media outlet, and RTVI is based in New York, Dozhd is a Russian entity that reports critically about the government.
Karmazina asked Rustamova if she had "friendly" relations with State Duma deputies and staff, to which the journalist replied, "I don't know what this has to do with the matter at hand."
"It is directly related," Karmazina said.
Rustamova said she had "excellent relations with many deputies in the State Duma," many of whom are "civilized and excellent people whom I respect greatly."
'Without Excess Publicity'
Valery Gartung, a lawmaker with the Kremlin-loyal Just Russia party, suggested that if Rustamova had reported the incident to him immediately after it happened, Slutsky could have been punished if the allegations proved to be true.
"I think we could have handled this matter, so to speak, without excessive publicity," Gartung said. "And I think that you would not have been subjected to this pressure."
He added that "there would likely have been a different reaction" if the allegations against Slutsky had been lodged earlier.
"I'd just like to say that too many coincidences have arisen in this situation," Gartung said.