Prominent investigative journalist Roman Anin believes that the newfound attention paid by Russian authorities to him and his media organization differs from the official line, and that recent raids on his home and office -- and his subsequent interrogation -- were in response to recent critical coverage of high-profile business and security figures.
Speaking to RFE/RL's Russian Service on April 13 a day after his visit to the Investigative Committee for questioning relating to a story he wrote five years ago, the editor in chief of Important Stories (Istories) gave his assessment of what he sees as part of the "sad process in Russia of pressure on independent journalism."
The April 9 seizure of computers and mobile phones from his home and and Istories' offices by Federal Security Service (FSB) officers, he said, had nothing to do with the recent reopening of the case centered on the piece he wrote in 2016 for Novaya gazeta that explored the connection between the wife of powerful Rosneft CEO Igor Sechin and one of the world's largest yachts.
That case had already been resolved, and resulted in the newspaper publishing a court-ordered refutation atop the article page that says the report was "untrue and discredited the honor and dignity" of Sechin, a longtime associate of President Vladimir Putin who is considered one of his closest allies. State-owned Rosneft is Russia's biggest oil company.
However, the case was reopened in March and Anin is being investigated as a witness for "violation of privacy" through the abuse of his professional position, a development that has led to an outcry from media watchdogs and independent journalists in Russia.
Whoever is behind the case, Anin told RFE/RL, had "a task, including gaining access to all my documents, to my sources, to my correspondence, to, perhaps, future publications that we are preparing."
The FSB took away everything he had touched, and many items that were not his at all, he said, paying special attention to English-language documents and anything related to his time spent abroad. Officers nearly walked away with a picture of him with fellow students at Stanford University in the United States, he said, before opting instead to simply take a photo of it.
"Of course, this was done in order to try to find something else," Anin said.
His interrogation as a witness at the Investigative Committee three days later, he said, focused on two points: the editorial processes at Novaya gazeta, and queries as to how he managed to gain access to photographs from Sechin's wife's Instagram account that were published in the 2016 Novaya gazeta report.
"I said that Olga Sechina, having published these photos on the site, a public site, thereby disseminated them among an unlimited number of people," Anin said. "And that it is clear that these photos, in fact, were published by her voluntarily."
"Everything leads to the conclusion that they want to accuse me of publishing Sechina's Instagram photos illegally and without her permission, which, in my opinion, is just a delusional construction," he said.
The potential charges under Part 2 of Article 137 of Russia's Criminal Code are punishable by up to four years in prison, as well as the deprivation of the right to hold certain positions or engage in certain activities for up to five years.
Istories specializes in investigative reports and lists among its recent articles an exposé into the wealth of Kirill Shamalov, Putin's former son-in-law, as well as a report on the FSB surveilling imprisoned opposition leader Aleksei Navalny. Another Istories investigation focused on deputy FSB head Sergei Korolev, and another on Rosneft's purchase of a stake in Pirelli and Sechin's role on the Italian tire giant's board of directors.
"I can only say that any of these investigations could have become a reason to put pressure on the editorial board of Important Stories in the first place, and on me as the editor in chief and author of that text about the yacht," Anin told RFE/RL.
Rosneft issued a press release on April 12 in which it said that it could not comment on the actions of law enforcement agencies, but alleged that the raid on the offices of Istories "was used by unscrupulous media to denigrate" the oil company and harm Russia.
"A large-scale information war has been launched against Rosneft and its leadership, in which foreign interests are also participants," the press release said. "The smear campaign is aimed at discrediting the results of Rosneft's activities, given its budgetary and system-forming role for the Russian economy, as well as its leading position in the global energy industry. Such information attacks are organized to reduce competitiveness and create additional sanctions risks not only for Rosneft, but for the country as a whole."
Rosneft added that it had already taken a number of legal actions to protect its business reputation and shareholder value, and called on the media to refrain from "biased assessments" and to take "legal responsibility for publishing false information in relation to the company." The company also said that the judgment by a Moscow court pertaining to the 2016 article published in Novaya gazeta "is exhaustive and confirms the fairness of the position of the plaintiff."
Rosneft has recently filed several additional lawsuits against media outlets in Russia, including Dozhd TV, Ekho Moskvy, and Novaya gazeta. On April 14, Kommersant reported that Rosneft had filed suit against the newspaper Sobesednik and its journalist Oleg Roldugin.
Roldugin said on his Telegram channel that the case was related to the newspaper's reporting in March on a Rosneft facility described as "Putin's personal ski resort." "Now it is definitely spring. This time Rosneft did not like this publication," Roldugin wrote on Telegram, providing a link to the story. "Read and distribute before Sechin bans everything."
As for his case, Anin told RFE/RL that he did not know the authorities' intentions, but that "the laws in Russia are now formulated in such a way that any independent journalist, in fact, acts on the edge and sometimes even beyond these laws."
"If they want to close Important Stories, they can do it tomorrow, no matter what excuse they have," he said.