REPORT
Russia: As space for independent media shrinks, journalists find themselves under increasing threats of physical violence
26 Jul 2019
BY KIRA TVERSKAYA

In Russia, dozens of independent outlets have closed or changed ownership and editorial policy in the last ten years. Numerous media outlets are still fighting to survive and produce quality journalism as their reporters face increasing threats of physical violence. 

Independent media sources have been hamstrung by restrictive legislation and police, governmental, and private interference. Physical assaults, detentions, lawsuits, fines, and blocked access are common. Many outlets have chosen to practice self-censorship to protect themselves. Strict new laws limiting press freedom have been introduced, despite having progressive press laws from the 1990s still on the books and a constitutional article guaranteeing freedom of the press. 

Out of 175 violations recorded in Russia by the Monitoring and Advocating for Media Freedom project between February and June 2019, 20 were physical assaults that came from political figures, police structures, known private individuals and unknown perpetrators. Several of the cases are egregious examples of how physical violence is used to target journalists in Russia.

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.

Case studies: Egregious physical violence

Vadim Kharchenko

On 1 June, Vadim Kharchenko, a Krasnodar-based blogger and author of Lichnoe Mneniye (“Personal Opinion”) YouTube channel was assaulted and shot by two unknown men, which he reported in a video posted to his blog. About two weeks before the incident, he had received an anonymous call from an individual, who introduced himself as a policeman willing to provide evidence that local policemen had tortured detainees and fabricated criminal cases against innocent people. Kharchenko agreed to meet the man, who told him that he had to urgently leave town and could only meet near the airport in the late evening. However, no one came to the meeting. On the way back to his car, Kharchenko heard someone call his name and turned around. He heard two gunshots. When he ran towards the shooter and wrestled him to the ground, another person stabbed him in the liver and right arm. When Kharchenko tried to fight the second attacker, the first shot him in the back. Both attackers fled, shouting “Vadim, leave [the town]”. Kharchenko then went to a hospital and documented his injuries – three gunshot wounds, two stab wounds and a concussion. 

The Krasnodar police said they were looking into the incident. Kharchenko is now recovering and undergoing treatment to restore movement in his right hand. He crowdfunded for medical expenses on his channel, which enabled him to travel to a Moscow clinic for treatment. 

Kharchenko believes the attack was motivated by the content of his YouTube channel, but does not know who was behind the attack. His channel criticises local authorities, reports and comments on protests and detention of activists, and conducts investigations into alleged abuse of power by the police.

In summer 2018, Kharchenko lost his job at a private security firm because of his blogging activity, and his car was set on fire. In 2017 he was assaulted twice: first, he was hit by a car; second,  he was hit in the head with a metal tire lever and stabbed with a 4-inch nail by an unknown man. Neither attacker was found.

Boris Ushakov
Boris Ushakov

Boris Usahakov

On 14 March Boris Usahakov, a coordinator of Gulagu.net project which exposes cases of torture, survived an attempt on his life in the city of Vladimir. Head of the project Vladimir Osechkin reported the attack in a video posted to the Gulagu.net website. 

According to Osechkin, Ushakov was returning home from a store when he saw a silhouette in a dark alley. When the man saw Ushakov, he drew a gun from inside his coat and aimed at him. Ushakov, who had received death threats before (the police ignored his reports), immediately began running away from the gunman and heard gunshots. He was able to hide in an apartment building and call the police. Instead of a police squad, an ambulance arrived and attempted to take Ushakov to a psychiatric hospital. The plan failed, as Ushakov was on the phone with his colleague, who stated loudly that she was recording the conversation and would bring the police malpractice to public attention. The police arrived soon after, but did not examine the premises and refused to investigate the crime scene. 

Ushakov reported on dozens of cases of police brutality and torture in prisons of Vladimir region for Gulagu.net. On 2 April, Ushakov was arrested after being questioned by police about the attack, and held in police custody. He told his colleagues that the policemen discussed planting drugs on him. He was later released, likely because of public outcry around the case. 

Vasily Utkin
Vasily Utkin

Vasily Utkin

On 3 April, sports journalist Vasily Utkin was assaulted with tear gas by an unknown individual, he reported on his Telegram channel. The attack took place late in the evening after the training session of the amateur football team Egrisi, where Utkin is a frequent guest. A young man in a grey hoodie approached Utkin as he walked to his car and sprayed him in the face with tear gas. The assailant also filmed the attack with his smartphone, “for the accountability record”, Utkin said.

“There is only one reason and only two people who would like to organise this. I was talking about it in the last episode of my show”, Utkin said, referring to his YouTube show Football Club. In the last episode, he discussed so-called Aguzarov-gate – the scheme in which Alan Aguzarov, the personal lawyer of the head coach of the Russian national football team, Stanislav Cherchesov, used his connections to Cherchesov to sign football players up for contracts, promising selection to the national team.

Utkin decided against going to the police to report the assault, and said it would simply be a waste of time. This was not the first attack on Utkin — in 2001, he was stabbed twice in the back with a screwdriver by an unknown assailant.

Journalists face perils when covering protests

Russia is infamous for its violent treatment of protestors. Journalists have found that their press credentials do not protect them.

On 1 May at least two journalists and one blogger were detained while covering a sanctioned opposition rally in Saint Petersburg, according to Zona.Media and OVD-Info. This included YouTube blogger Nikita Zabzanov, who was forcefully arrested and had his camera confiscated. He was later released with no charges. Freelance photojournalist Georgiy Markov and Oleg Nasonov, a photojournalist with St. Petersburg-based online news outlet Dva Stula, were also detained despite identifying themselves as members of the press. Makarov was assaulted by the police during his arrest. According to Makarov, he was struck in the ribs and head with rubber batons, and his arm was bleeding. He was held at a police station for two and a half hours without any charges, and was later hospitalised. A total of 131 people were detained at demonstrations across 11 Russian cities on the same day.

On 14 May Anna Mayorova, a photographer with Ura.ru news agency, was attacked with tear gas while covering protests against the construction of a church in a public park in Ekaterinburg, Ura.ru reported. Mayorova did not see who sprayed tear gas at the crowd, but noted it was one of the “ripped fighters” who arrived at the scene and confronted the activists. The police did not catch the perpetrator. Mayorova and numerous other people at the protest were injured by the tear gas.

On 15 May another Ura.ru photographer, Vladimir Zhabrikov, was kicked by a policeman, who told him to “take away his lenses”. Zhabrikov had a press badge on him.

Journalists in Russia are frequently assaulted while working on stories

Government officials and private security often target the journalists investigating them.

Ivan Golunov
Ivan Golunov

The story of Meduza special reporter Ivan Golunov received media coverage around the world. Golunov was detained in Moscow on 6 June on suspicion of drug dealing, an accusation that the Kremlin later admitted had been entirely fabricated. He was stopped on the street by several policemen, who searched his backpack and claimed to have discovered a package with an unknown substance. One more package was reported to have been found in Golunov’s apartment. Golunov denied all accusations, and insisted that the drugs had been planted.

When Golunov spoke to his lawyer the following day, the latter discovered that Golunov had been bruised and injured. According to the journalist, he was threatened, punched and kicked while being interrogated at the police station. He was denied an ambulance.

The situation drew massive attention throughout Russia, with hundreds of people, many of them members of the press, protesting in front of the prosecutor’s office in Moscow alone. Journalists from a variety of outlets, from partisan to state media, all condemned Golunov’s arrest and called for a fair investigation and trial. On 11 June, Golunov was released and all charges against him dropped in an uncommon victory for Russian civil society. The investigation is ongoing, but the tide has turned against the police officers who initiated the arrest. 

On 27 May, Ivan Litomin, reporter of state-owned TV channel Rossiya 24, was physically assaulted and thrown to the ground. His attacker was Sergey Zaytsev, head of the Shirinsky district in the Khakasia region, Rossiya 24 reported. 

Accompanied by a film crew of two people, Litomin set out to interview Zaytsev, investigating the discrepancy between the official’s luxurious mansion and the poor-quality houses provided by the government to those who lost their homes in wildfires in 2015. Zaytsev behaved aggressively toward Litomin and tried to take away his microphone. He then grabbed Lidomin and threw him to the ground, shouting “Go away, I’m telling you, get out of here”. Zaytsev’s aides pushed Lidomin out of the office and tried to prevent the cameramen from filming the incident.

After the video of Lidomin’s attack went viral, Evgeny Revenko, secretary of the ruling political party, United Russia — of which Zaytsev is a member — publicly apologised. United Russia also expelled Zaytsev. The state Investigative Committee opened a criminal case against Zaytsev on charges of obstruction of journalistic activity.

Zaytsev called the incident “a planned provocation,” and claimed that Litomin fell by himself rather than being pushed. “They broke into my office outside of working hours and started calling me a corrupt thief, saying that I had a criminal past and asking if I was ashamed of being the head of the district. It lasted ten minutes. It was impossible to talk to the journalist. I tried to push him out of my office. He was actively protesting. How can it be an assault, when three big men broke into my office, where I was alone, and two of them were physically stronger than me?”, Zaytsev told state-operated news source RIA Novosti. Zaytsev filed a complaint with the police, attempting to prosecute Litomin for “offence of a representative of the government”.

On 20 March, three reporters for the media outlet Rosderzhava, Andrey Oryol, Alexander Dorogov and Pavel Tsibulyak, were physically assaulted while trying to investigate inside an office building, Mediazona reported. The reporters accompanied an ex-employee of PromMash Test company to the company’s offices to investigate the circumstances of her firing. They were met with hostility and physical violence. Over fifteen of the boss’s deputies started beating the reporters, following them to the street as they fled and continuing to assault them. The attackers took their cameras, phones, documents and wallets. Oryol and Dorogov ended up in the hospital. 

Deputy chief editor of Rosderzhava Yan Katelevskiy told Mediazona that there had been no investigation of the incident. In fact, the journalists themselves could be prosecuted, as PromMash Test filed a lawsuit against them for hooliganism. Oryol has since left the country for rehabilitation. Katelevskiy insists that PromMash Test’s CEO Alexey Filatchev and his brother, both ex-FSB employees, took part in the beating.

Boris Ivanov, a YouTube blogger and reporter with Rosderzhava who filmed the bloodied car and patch of ground near PromMash Test’s office after the incident took place, was detained near his home in Moscow on 4 June, OVD-Info reported. According to Ivanov, the policemen did not identify themselves or explain the reason for his arrest. They twisted the journalist’s arm, took away his phone, and brought him to Tverskoe police station. After the arrival of Ivanov’ lawyer, the policemen released him without any charges.

On 20 March, Ilya (his last name was not disclosed), a part-time local correspondent for 47news, was assaulted by a security guard at Gazprom’s Sotsinvest construction site, 47news reported. The incident took place near Lesnoye village in Leningrad oblast, where the company is constructing a large logistics center. Ilya was assigned to film the premises using a drone. He was stopped by a security guard near the entrance. The guard called for reinforcements, took away Ilya’s equipment, hit him in the face, and threatened to “fucking drown” him. The police were called to the incident. They took away Ilya’s drone and recorded in their report that the attack came from “an unidentified person”. Gazprom provided no commentary. The logistics center is reported to have cost 15 billion rubles, three times the proposed budget, according to a recent expert report from Fontanka.ru. 47news vowed to publish a new investigation about Gazprom.

"Legislation is only effective in a society governed by the rule of law"

David Filipov (Photo: Tufts)

Press freedom in Russia is largely defined by practice, David Filipov, a former Moscow bureau chief for The Washington Post, told Index on Censorship. 

“Lots of places have good press laws. But legislation is only effective in a society governed by the rule of law. Russia is not one of those,” he said. Countries like Russia have the ability to limit the freedoms embedded in their constitutions through legislation passed by rubber stamp parliaments, and root out or weaken civil society institutions that ensure the protection of citizens from abuse by government

Russia’s legislation — examples of which the Monitoring and Advocating Project reported on in its previous report on Russia — curbs the reporting of investigative journalists in particular. While there are many intrepid reporters in Russia, “the state is constantly focused on an effort to root out media outlets that produce great investigative reporting, and replace that with statist, loyalist noise,” Filipov said.

The current media environment is vastly different from the 1990s, when the Russians had “a brief taste of US-style media.” Filipov said that when media is operated as a business rather than an “affair of the state”, reporters can investigate and report. When media becomes an instrument of the authoritarian state, reporters can only parrot the party line. “Unfortunately, in Russia, and, increasingly, in various other states, authoritarian leaders have latched on to the idea that controlling media means prolonging power”, he said.

Filipov emphasised that authoritarian states like Russia have a constant need to restate their legitimacy: “Why are we forced to take harsh measures? Because our freedom is in danger! We are for freedom! But there are enemies who would take it away!”

He recounted meeting a member of NOD (natsional’noye osvoboditel’noye dvizheniye, or “National Liberation Movement.”) in the “protest pit”, the only place near the Sochi Olympics where people were allowed to demonstrate. “The sole protester was telling me she supported ‘Russia’s sovereignty’ and opposed ‘attempts from outside forces to take it away’, and therefore supported Putin,” he said, calling it a bland version of the mantra he heard at the NOD rallies, where the effort to dismantle “Russian sovereignty” is described as a foreign-inspired aggression against ‘the real’ Russia, which needs to be met with popular force. “And therefore, if we can show, using our twisted logic, that a certain journalist is an aggressor, then that ‘aggressor’ needs to be met with force.” 

Filipov told Index that since all civil society protections against the abuse of power by pro-government mobs have been subverted, such as the courts, co-opted, such as human rights ombudspersons, or dissolved and officially discredited, such as NGOs, there is no one left to properly call out the abuses by pro-government non-official entities. “But if someone brings it up to Putin during his press conferences, he can say, ‘Give me the names of these people, I will investigate. We cannot have such abuses in our country”.

Press Freedom Violations in Russia

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

0

Death/Killing

20

Physical Assault/Injury

32

Arrest/Detention/Interrogation

29

Criminal Charges/Fines/Sentences

27

Intimidation

16

Blocked Access

16

Attack to Property

23

Subpoena/Court Order/Lawsuits

15

Legal Measures/Legislation

0

Offine Harassment

0

Online Harassment

4

DDoS/Hacking/Doxing

22

Censorship

175

Total

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

10

Employer/Publisher/Colleague(s)

60

Police/State Security

7

Private Security

27

Court/Judicial

48

Government official(s)/State Agency/Political Party

7

Corporation

18

Known private individual(s)

0

Another Media Outlet

0

Criminal Organisation

17

Unknown

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