REPORT
Legislative restrictions, bomb threats and vandalism are just some of the issues Russian journalists have faced this year
22 May 2019
BY KIRA TVERSKAYA

Key trends:

  • The targeting of newsrooms comes amid growing hostility towards journalists within the general public, and the enactment of new legislation by the government supposedly targeting “fake news” and propaganda. In addition, the lack of accountability for crimes against journalists and news outlets contributes to an overall atmosphere of impunity.
  • New legislation is making it difficult to publish material that contradicts the official version of events.
  • Russians have been facing an unprecedented spate of bomb threats. The media has not been immune.

This report looks at 116 incidents that Index on Censorship’s Monitoring and Advocating for Media Freedom project classified as threats, limitations or violations of press freedom in Russia between 1 February 2019 and 30 April 2019: 43 in February, 43 in March and 30 in April. The total number of reports collected by project correspondents represents a slight increase over the same period last year, during which 101 incidents were recorded.

In  2018, physical assaults, legislative measures, fines, intimidation and loss of employment were the most pressing obstacles to press freedom as reported by Mapping Media Freedom. So far in  2019, we have seen a rise in the number of fines, intimidation and physical violence against journalists, with an addition of lawsuits and legal measures, blocked access, and detention of media workers.

Index on Censorship’s Monitoring and Advocating for Media Freedom project documents, analyses, and publicises threats, limitations and violations related to media freedom in Azerbaijan, Belarus, Russia, Turkey and Ukraine, in order to identify  possible opportunities for advancing media freedom in these countries. The project collects, analyses and publicises limitations, threats and violations that affect journalists as they do their job, and advocates for greater press freedom in these countries and raises alerts at the international level.

The project builds on Index on Censorship’s 4.5 years monitoring media freedom in 43 European countries, as part of Mapping Media Freedom platform.

Targeting of newsrooms

The targeting of newsrooms comes amid a growing hostility toward journalists within the general public, and the enactment of new legislation that purportedly targets  “fake news” and propaganda. In addition, the lack of accountability for crimes against journalists and news outlets contributes to an overall atmosphere of impunity.

“You’re going to die, small fry”

At 8.30am on 1 April 2019, the Yekaterinburg regional office of Kommersant, a national daily newspaper in Russia, was found to have been vandalised. The newspaper primarily focuses on political and business affairs. Sergey Plakhotin, the general director of the regional office, said that the cleaner had arrived to find the door to the office open. Plakhotin’s office, the chief editor’s office and the senior accountant’s office had all been vandalised; computers were on the floor and hard drives were missing. On his desk, Plakhotin found a note: “you’re going to die small fry”. Plakhotin believes that the door was opened with a key.

Within hours, police detained an unemployed 46-year old local man, who has been charged with  “intentional damage to property”, which is punishable by up to five years in jail.

According to law enforcement, the suspect pleaded guilty, saying that he had committed the vandalism while under the influence of alcohol. He also told police that he had “personal motives” that were not in connection with Kommersant’s journalistic work. The individual was released but was barred from traveling.  

However, Kommersant journalists didn’t rule out a possibility that the attack could be a retaliation for their award-winning new book Gang Catchers: The Meeting Point, which details the fight against organised crime in Yekaterinburg. Platokhin told Echo Moskvy radio that he wasn’t convinced about the connection to criminal syndicates, as the newsroom didn’t have any ongoing conflicts, and cited the time of year, namely vesennye obostreniye (“spring fever”) was likely to blame.

“Justifying Terrorism”

On 13 February 2019, police in Pskov raided the office of the local weekly newspaper, Pskovskaya Gubernia. Police confiscated a hard drive containing the next issue of the paper and, as a result, editors were forced to delay publication.

Editor-in-chief, Denis Kamalyagin, said that the raid was most likely a response to  the newspaper’s support of journalist and previous contributor, Svetlana Prokopyeva. Prokopyeva is currently under investigation for allegedly “justifying terrorism” (a criminal offense in Russia) on her radio show. In October 2018, she discussed the causes of an explosion in the Federal Security Services office in Arkhangelsk.

Grani

On 25 March 2019, the opposition news outlet Grani was targeted. The glass doors of their office in Novocheboksarsk were smashed. The vandal has not been found and a motive has not been established. Random and seemingly baseless attacks create tension in newsrooms and feed the overarching atmosphere of hostility toward journalists in the country.

On 26 March 2019, a office block in Perm, which houses five different media outlets owned by holding company Mestnoye Vremya, had its electricity supply cut. Sources close to the owner of the facility, who is also head of the local branch of the ruling political party United Russia, said that he disliked a programme that had criticised his work that had aired on the Echo Moskvy affiliate owned by Mestnoye Vremya. However, the “official” account  held that the electricity cut was related to rent arrears. Mestnoye Vremya partially paid the debt in April to avoid immediate eviction.

Restrictive laws

Mikhail Fedotov, chairman of the Russian Human Rights Council, asked President Vladimir Putin to send the fake news legislation back for revisions.
Mikhail Fedotov, chairman of the Russian Human Rights Council, asked President Vladimir Putin to send the fake news legislation back for revisions.

New legislation is making it difficult to publish material that contradicts the official version of events.

On 18 March 2019 Russian President Vladimir Putin signed a set of controversial bills that criminalises spreading “fake news” and bans online shows of “disrespect” against the government, its officials, society, and state symbols.   

Fake news

Federal law from 18.03.2019 № 30-FZ on revision of the Federal law on information, information technologies and protection of information

For publishing “fake information of public value” private individuals could now face fines ranging from 30,000 ($462) to 100,000 rubles ($1,538), government officials – from 60,000 ($923) to 200,000 ($3,077) rubles, judicial entities – from 200,000 to 500,000 rubles ($7,695). Last-minute editions to the bill allowed registered mass media to promptly delete any material that was found to be “fake news” to avoid fines.

Dmitry Peskov, a Kremlin spokesperson, pointed to harsh regulations toward fake news being enacted around the world, including Europe, in justification of why the legislation was introduced and signed by the president. He was referring to the laws compelling social media companies to remove hate speech and other illegal content in France and Germany. In April 2019, the UK government released a white paper that proposed a regulatory framework to address “online harms”, including disinformation.

Prior to Putin’s approval of the law, Mikhail Fedotov, chairman of the Russian Human Rights Council, asked Putin to send the legislation back for revisions and stated the use of the term “fake news” implied that the state possessed the knowledge of “absolute truth”, whereas truth is always relative.

Journalists also criticised the legislation. “It looks like in its current form the law is aimed at protecting the elites rather than protecting society. It becomes an instrument of pressure on the media”, RBC editorial board co-manager Elizaveta Golikova told Vedomosti newspaper. Golikova added that the lack of definition for “fake news” meant that it was inevitable that meaningful information and important news would be removed from the web.

On his radio programme on 16 March, Alexey Venediktov, editor-in-chief of Echo Moskvy, addressed the issue:  “The main catch with these laws […] is that the decision will be made by one person – the prosecutor. It’s an extrajudicial decision… which will start ruining business for those who do it. It’s a zone for lawlessness and corruption. Because if I’d like to shut down our competitors at Mayak radio, I’d just pay a bribe. And the prosecutor will shut them down. And then they’ll struggle for two years to reopen”.

Disrespect of the government

The second new restrictive law bans online shows of “disrespect” against the government, its officials, society, and state symbols. To qualify as disrespectful an article, comment or post “…must not only show obvious disrespect and be made in an inappropriate form, but also insult human dignity and public morality” according to the law. The publication of such material could lead to snowballing fines: 30,000 -100,000 rubles for the first offense, up to 200,000 rubles or 15 days detention for the second, and after that 300,000 rubles ($4,615) fine or arrest.

This law was used for the first time on 2 April 2019. The general prosecutor’s office supposedly gave directions to the Federal Service for Supervision of Communications, Information Technology and Mass Media, also known as Roskomnadzor, to force five Yaroslavl-based media outlets remove articles on graffiti that allegedly insulted President Putin. The graffiti (“Putin pidor”) suggested in an explicit form that Russian president was gay. Roskomnadzor called it preventive work.

Yaroslavl website Yarkub received an email demanding that they delete the article about the grafiti by midnight. Yarkub’s editor-in-chief later received a phone call from Roskomnadzor’s regional department. Yarkub saw the situation as an act of censorship. Another email from Roskomnadzor clarified that the article had to be deleted due to the new law about “disrespecting authorities” that came into force on 29 March, TJournal website reported.

Olga Prokhorova, the editor of another Yaroslavl-based media outlet, 76.ru, received five calls from Roskomnadzor with requests to delete a similar article about the graffiti. She was told by the officials that they were pressured “from far above” to prosecute media that published articles on the subject. However, the general prosecutor’s office denied any involvement, Interfax reported.

TJournal named five outlets that ended up deleting materials covering the graffiti: Echo Moskvy Yaroslavl, Yaroslavskiy Region, PRO Gorod, Pervyi Yaroslavskiy and Moskovskiy Komsomolets in Yaroslavl.

Another bill, approved by the Russian Duma in the first out of three readings on 2 April, includes potential fines for “unsanctioned” distribution of foreign press. Since 2017 foreign press distributors in Russia have had to seek official permission from state media regulator Roskomnadzor. The new bill classifies a violation of the law as an administrative offence, introduces fines of up to 30,000 rubles ($462) and decrees that the printed material will be seized.

It is not yet clear whether the bill would only address mass distribution or could be used to punish individuals who order a foreign magazine from abroad or bring one into the country on their return. The bill is reminiscent of the Soviet censoring mechanism, where most foreign press and literature was banned, and the limited quantities entering the country ended up in restricted sections of Russian state libraries – for official use only.

Reaction

The Russian president’s Human Rights Council published a resolution in which it called the laws “an obviously disproportionate restriction of freedom of speech and opinion”, and stated they “form a ground for arbitrary persecution of citizens and organizations”.

OSCE Representative on Freedom of the Media Harlem Désir said in a statement: “These laws allow for broader restrictions and the censorship of online journalism and online speech. The definitions of allegedly offensive content are vaguely worded and will impact freedom of expression”.

Despite the criticism and concerns about threats to freedom of speech raised by journalists, activists and the Human Rights Council, both laws passed. When asked about the laws, the Kremlin spokesperson said neither could be classified as “censorship.”

Bomb threats

In early February, the staff of the news outlet Gazeta.ru became victims of the “telephone terrorism” they had been covering. An anonymous, and ultimately a hoax, bomb threat forced the evacuation of the news outlet’s offices. Staff were unable to update the website or prepare articles for publication. Gazeta’s journalists said that the targeting of their organisation was tied into a national trend: in early 2019, more than 2 million people were forced to flee anonymous threats of explosives planted in shopping malls, railway stations and offices.

On 15 February 2019, Russkoye Radio, one of the biggest radio networks in Russia , and Zvezda TV  were both forced to evacuate their offices . Staffers had to wait for bomb sniffing dogs and police to give them the all-clear before they could return to work. On that same day over 5,000 people at 10 different Moscow-based businesses were forced to leave their offices because of threats.

In mid-March state broadcaster VGTRK was the target. Twenty employees working in a film studio had to leave the premises because of an anonymous bomb threat received by email.

In none of the cases were any traces of explosives discovered, and the callers were not identified.

Terrorism charges

Svetlana Prokopieva
“The case against Svetlana Prokopieva is absurd and must be dropped immediately. It is yet another example of Russia abusing its anti-terrorism legislation to restrict reporting in the public interest and freedom of speech,” said Sarah Clarke, Head of Europe and Central Asia at Article 19. “Russia must stop abusing anti-terrorism legislation to crush political dissent.”

Svetlana Prokopieva, a Pskov bureau reporter for Echo Moskvy, was detained — and the radio station fined  — on charges related to justifying terrorism in her show. During one of the programs she discussed the causes of an explosion in the Federal Security Services office in Arkhangelsk in October 2018.

Omsk journalist Viktor Korb fled Russia on 25 February 2019, becoming one of the dozens of journalists who have left Russia for  fear of being prosecuted or because of threats to their lives. He was charged with “propaganda of terrorism” after publishing the last word of a blogger jailed for “calls to terrorism”, put under travel ban, and is now on the wanted list.

On 27 April 2019, armed police officers broke into an apartment in Makhachkala belonging to the parents of Alexandr Gorbunov, who was earlier named by RBC news outlet as author of a popular anonymous Telegram channel called Stalingulag. The channel is  known for outspoken, often slangy criticism of the authorities. According to the channel, Gorbunov’s mother was interrogated for six hours.

According to Stalingulag, police wanted Gorbunov on suspicion of “phone terrorism”, related to a series of phone calls with bomb threats that turned out to be fake but caused mass evacuations in Moscow. “How original, before they used to just plant drugs”, the author commented in his Telegram channel, referring to a known tactic of criminal case fabrication against activists.

Press Freedom Violations in Russia

Number and types of incidents recorded between 1 February and 30 April 2019

0

Death/Killing

11

Physical Assault/Injury

18

Arrest/Detention/Interrogation

18

Criminal Charges/Fines/Sentences

20

Intimidation

9

Blocked Access

10

Attack to Property

12

Subpoena/Court Order/Lawsuits

2

Legal Measures/Legislation

0

Offine Harassment

0

Online Harassment

2

DDoS/Hacking/Doxing

8

Censorship

Source of the incidents recorded between 1 February and 30 April 2019

4

Employer/Publisher/Colleague(s)

28

Police/State Security

7

Private Security

19

Court/Judicial

23

Government official(s)/State Agency/Political Party

3

Corporation

12

Known private individual(s)

0

Another Media Outlet

0

Criminal Organisation

13

Unknown

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