Too dangerous to stay: Russia’s journalists are leaving the country

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A country with the largest territory in the world and a turbulent modern history, Russia is home to one of the most difficult media landscapes and censorship has been tightening its grip with new-found strength.

Free media was virtually non-existent during the decades of Soviet rule. It wasn’t until 1991 that Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev signed a decree allowing the first independent media outlets to emerge. This was also the year the Soviet Union ceased to be, and Russia was born in its stead. The constitution of Russia, adopted in 1993, guaranteed, among other rights and freedoms, the freedom of speech.

In 2018 it is still the same country with the same constitution, but the initial euphoria for freedom ended abruptly in 2003 after the shake-up of the television channel NTV. From its foundation in 1993 through the early 2000s, NTV was the largest private broadcaster in Russia and a stronghold of free speech, which didn’t suit Vladimir Putin, who first became president in 2000. Witty, free-spoken hosts openly criticised the government, reported on its failures and produced sharp political satire. The undermining of the channel began in 1999 with governmental lawsuits, and the final blow was dealt soon after the tragic events around Nord Ost, the three-day theatre siege in 2002, also known as the Dubrovka terror attack. Putin’s displeasure with NTV’s honest coverage and investigation into the death of 129 hostages, who inhaled an unidentified state-administered gas, resulted in the firing of the network’s CEO Boris Jordan. Soon after, the channel ceased to exist only to be reborn as a state-controlled media outlet with the same name.

Today, mass media in Russia is quite a different scene. The government sets the tone for many things, including the attitude towards journalists. Who are the good guys and who are the bad guys? Which news events should be covered in state media and which are too upsetting to show to the country?

State-owned and state-friendly TV channels like Channel 1 and Rossiya are known for meticulously filtering the inflow of news and dropping the themes and subjects that may throw shadow on the government. The few independent outlets left standing, like Ekho Moskvy, Novaya Gazeta and Dozhd TV, have to endure harassment from power structures and take part in legal battles against governmental institutions and businesses willing to censor them.

Recent additions to Russian legislation make it easier to prosecute media outlets for their reporting. Financial struggle is also real for many Russian media, which are being purchased and reshaped according to the tastes of the new owners, who often happen to have close ties to the Kremlin. That’s what happened to RBC newspaper and TV channel, among others.

Self-censorship is prevalent in newsrooms as well.

The number of threats and acts of violence against journalists has increased three-fold within the last two years, reported Natalia Kostenko, the head of the ONF Centre for Legal Support of Journalists, at a conference in March 2018.  Kostenko cited restriction of access, verbal threats, physical violence, damage to personal belongings and lawsuits as the most common misdemeanours against media workers.

However, media freedom is not the only concern in today’s Russia. The political climate has changed drastically over the last few years: the country has seen a surge of nationalism, xenophobia and religious fervour, and the revival of Soviet methods of dealing with “thought criminals”. Under recently passed legislation, a person can be imprisoned for a social media like or repost if anyone considers it to be hateful or extremist. The economic stagnation and financial crisis, which began in 2014 as the result of sanctions against Russia’s actions in Crimea and Donbass, has been an important factor in all of this and contributed to a new wave of emigration, or “brain drain”, that has hit the country. [/vc_column_text][/vc_column][/vc_row][vc_row][vc_column][vc_single_image image=”102871″ img_size=”full”][/vc_column][/vc_row][vc_row][vc_column][vc_column_text]Journalists are emigrating from the country for the same reasons as other groups. Some leave to pursue better career opportunities at foreign news outlets. Some follow their families or marry abroad. Some simply want a safer, more open environment for themselves and their children.[/vc_column_text][/vc_column][/vc_row][vc_row][vc_column][vc_single_image image=”102872″ img_size=”full”][/vc_column][/vc_row][vc_row][vc_column][vc_column_text]Veteran TV host Tatiana Lazareva found herself unable to find any work on Russian television after she and her husband Mikhail Shatz took part in covering opposition leader Alexey Navalny‘s protests in 2012. This got them blacklisted on most Russian TV channels. “I don’t have a profession anymore,” Lazareva told Dozhd TV in an interview last year. “As I see it now, they wanted to take not only television away from us, but any chance to make money, wanted us, like, to crawl on our knees and beg.”

She moved to Spain, where she and her family had been spending their holidays for 15 years, to raise her youngest daughter. Lazareva continues her charity work in Russia and heads a motivational programme for people over 50, but the door to journalism in her country remains closed.

Lazareva’s example is not unique, and many young journalists now prefer to either start their careers abroad or change professions. For some journalists, leaving Russia is the only possible choice.

Vocal and straightforward, Karina Orlova had been a journalist at Ekho Moskvy radio for over a year when the attack on the French magazine Charlie Hebdo took place. A few days after the massacre, she hosted a show with Maxim Shevchenko, a right-wing journalist and then-member of the Russian Presidential Council on Human Rights. Orlova asked Shevchenko to comment on the threatening statement made by Chechen Republic leader Ramzan Kadyrov in response to exiled businessman Mikhail Khodorkovsky’s suggestion that every media outlet should republish Charlie Hebdo’s controversial Prophet Mohammed caricatures as an act of solidarity. Kadyrov called Khodorkovsky “the enemy of all Muslims” and his “personal enemy”, and said he hoped someone “would make the fugitive answer” for his words.  Shevchenko kept defending Kadyrov’s point of view, while Orlova attempted to get Shevchenko to acknowledge the severity of the threats and report them to the council. For this, she too became a target. [/vc_column_text][/vc_column][/vc_row][vc_row][vc_column][vc_single_image image=”102873″ img_size=”full” add_caption=”yes”][/vc_column][/vc_row][vc_row][vc_column][vc_column_text]Orlova’s mother discovered that threats were being made under the journalist’s profile on a website for local journalists. Orlova then began receiving threats through her Facebook account. She could tell there was something different about these threats – they weren’t like the usual outbursts she encountered while on air. The men, residents of Chechnya and Ingushetia, didn’t try to hide their identity. They called Orlova “the enemy of Islam” and promised to kill her in many different ways. At the same time, Kadyrov directed threats to Ekho’s staff chief editor Alexey Venediktov.

In haste, Orlova packed her things and boarded a flight to the United States, which she believed to be the safest place for her. It took her some time to feel comfortable in the new environment and polish her English skills. She still contributes to Ekho, but her main job is with an American political magazine.

“Return to Russia? I can’t, I don’t want to and I won’t. Russia is a dangerous country where the raging of the power structures got even more out of hand in the last three years,” Orlova says. “There are no independent courts, the police only chases the “enemies of the state” and robs local businesses.”

Despite being away from Russia for three years, Orlova’s name hasn’t been forgotten. “In January 2018 director Nikita Mikhalkov filmed an episode of his TV show, Besogon (“Exorcist” in Russian), about me. He called me Goebbels and a fascist for an old article in which I suggested that Russia needed a lustration, and all people who worked in the Soviet system should be excluded from the government. Last time Besogon covered an Ekho journalist, Tanya Felgengauer was brutally attacked,” Orlova said.

Echo Moskvy's Tatiana Felgengauer, a long-time host and one of the editor-in-chief’s deputies, was stabbed several times in the neck in the station's office. (Photo: Facebook)

Echo Moskvy’s Tatiana Felgengauer, a host and one of the editor-in-chief’s deputies, was stabbed several times in the neck in the station’s office. (Photo: Facebook)

Ekho host Tatiana Felgengauer was stabbed in the throat in October 2017 at the station’s headquarters. The attacker pepper-sprayed a guard and went for Felgengauer once he reached the office. He was deemed to be a paranoid schizophrenic and sentenced to compulsory medical treatment by the court.

Yulia Latynina

Yulia Latynina (Twitter)

As one of the most noticeable and outspoken radio hosts in Moscow, Felgengauer was criticised by Russian state outlets more than once. Just a week before the attack she was called a “traitor of the motherland” on state television for attending a conference sponsored by foreign human rights organisations. She survived thanks to quick medical attention and has since fully recovered and returned to work. Nevertheless, it was a very close call.

Soon after the attack Ksenia Larina, another Ekho journalist, began receiving death threats. Not taking any chances, she promptly left the country for Europe.

Yulia Latynina hosted her own show at Ekho while also contributing to the newspaper Novaya Gazeta. The sharp-tongued novelist and journalist has been an object of criticism for many years, but the final straw for her came in September 2018 when her car was burned out right outside her country house, which had previously been sprayed with a dangerous military-grade chemical. Latynina now spends her time between different countries and has no plans to return to Russia.[/vc_column_text][/vc_column][/vc_row][vc_row][vc_column][vc_separator color=”black”][vc_column_text]

No other Russian outlet has seen more of their journalists threatened, attacked and murdered over the years than Novaya Gazeta. One of the last bastions of Russian free press standing, the newsroom works under extreme pressure, carrying on in the same line of work as their fallen colleagues, who paid with their lives to get the truth out.

[/vc_column_text][vc_row_inner][vc_column_inner width=”1/4″][vc_single_image image=”102877″ img_size=”full”][/vc_column_inner][vc_column_inner width=”3/4″][vc_column_text]2000, Igor Domnikov, reported on business corruption in Moscow. Beaten to death outside his apartment by multiple men wielding hammers. Some of the murderers were arrested and sentenced in 2007, while the mastermind of the crime was let go.[/vc_column_text][/vc_column_inner][/vc_row_inner][vc_row_inner][vc_column_inner width=”1/4″][vc_single_image image=”102880″ img_size=”full”][/vc_column_inner][vc_column_inner width=”3/4″][vc_column_text]2003, Yury Schekochikhin, investigative journalist. Died of a mysterious 16-day illness, possibly poison. Real cause of death never determined, independent investigation banned, case closed.[/vc_column_text][/vc_column_inner][/vc_row_inner][vc_row_inner][vc_column_inner width=”1/4″][vc_single_image image=”85407″ img_size=”full”][/vc_column_inner][vc_column_inner width=”3/4″][vc_column_text]2006, Anna Politkovskaya, most famous for reporting about the Second Chechen War. First poisoned in 2004, recovered; then shot dead in her apartment building right on Vladimir Putin’s birthday. Murderers found and jailed, mastermind never found, investigation closed. Politkovskaya won an Index on Censorship Freedom of Expression Award for her courageous journalism.[/vc_column_text][/vc_column_inner][/vc_row_inner][vc_row_inner][vc_column_inner width=”1/4″][vc_single_image image=”102879″ img_size=”full”][/vc_column_inner][vc_column_inner width=”3/4″][vc_column_text]2009, lawyer Stanislav Markelov and freelance reporter Anastasia Baburova. Both shot in the head on a Moscow side street in broad daylight. Both the killers and the mastermind found and jailed.[/vc_column_text][/vc_column_inner][/vc_row_inner][vc_row_inner][vc_column_inner width=”1/4″][vc_single_image image=”102878″ img_size=”full”][/vc_column_inner][vc_column_inner width=”3/4″][vc_column_text]2009, Natalia Estemirova, human rights activist and journalist in Chechnya. Abducted near her home and found dead with bullet wounds in a woodland miles away. The killer was identified by the officials and allegedly killed in ambush. The newspaper staff is skeptical of this version, as the man’s DNA samples didn’t match the ones found on the crime scene.[/vc_column_text][/vc_column_inner][/vc_row_inner][vc_separator][/vc_column][/vc_row][vc_row][vc_column][vc_column_text]

It would only be fair to say that Novaya Gazeta management knows pretty well when a threat is real. So instead of waiting for governmental protection, they take their own precautions. Here are just some of the recent stories of those who left the country before it was too late, related by the paper’s former chief editor Dmitry Muratov:

[/vc_column_text][vc_row_inner][vc_column_inner width=”1/4″][vc_single_image image=”102890″ img_size=”full”][/vc_column_inner][vc_column_inner width=”3/4″][vc_column_text]Sergey Zolovkin used to be a police officer who solved many crimes, co-founded Sochi newspaper and was a Novaya Gazeta author. He was threatened many times, his car sabotaged, relatives beaten up, an attempt on his life made in 2002 – the would-be killer was caught on the spot as Zolovkin was armed; he moved to Germany soon after.[/vc_column_text][/vc_column_inner][/vc_row_inner][vc_row_inner][vc_column_inner width=”1/4″][vc_single_image image=”102891″ img_size=”full”][/vc_column_inner][vc_column_inner width=”3/4″][vc_column_text]Maynat Abdulaeva (Kurbanova) was reporting from Grozny, Chechnya, for years, until she and her family started receiving death threats. She has been living in Germany under PEN program Writers in Exile since 2004.[/vc_column_text][/vc_column_inner][/vc_row_inner][vc_row_inner][vc_column_inner width=”1/4″][vc_single_image image=”102889″ img_size=”full”][/vc_column_inner][vc_column_inner width=”3/4″][vc_column_text]Evgeniy Titov left in 2016. He reported on human rights violations in Krasnodar and corruption around Sochi 2014 Olympics, was threatened by the police and private individuals, and requested asylum in Lithuania.[/vc_column_text][/vc_column_inner][/vc_row_inner][vc_row_inner][vc_column_inner width=”1/4″][vc_single_image image=”102888″ img_size=”full”][/vc_column_inner][vc_column_inner width=”3/4″][vc_column_text]Elena Milashina co-authored the 2017 world-famous investigation about hundreds of gay men kidnapped, tortured and killed in Chechnya in a covert attempt to “purge” the region. Having been previously attacked and beaten up in 2006 and 2012, she fled Russia following death threats from Chechen officials and Muslim preachers, but continued to cover the region.[/vc_column_text][/vc_column_inner][/vc_row_inner][vc_row_inner][vc_column_inner width=”1/4″][vc_single_image image=”102885″ img_size=”full”][/vc_column_inner][vc_column_inner width=”3/4″][vc_column_text]Ali Feruz (pen name) reported on hate crimes, LGBTQ and migrant worker’s rights. He was born in Uzbekistan, though his mother was Russian. He escaped from the country after being detained and tortured by the Uzbek National Security Service, who wanted his cooperation. Feruz moved to Russia and tried to obtain a Russian citizenship on jus sanguinis principle. His initial appeal was turned down, but a new case looked promising. He was suddenly arrested in August 2017 and sentenced to deportation to Uzbekistan. In the following three and a half months Feruz was abused and tortured in detention – and no one got punished for it. He was rescued and granted asylum by the German government, and will never be able to return to Russia. [/vc_column_text][/vc_column_inner][/vc_row_inner][vc_row_inner][vc_column_inner width=”1/4″][vc_single_image image=”102886″ img_size=”full”][/vc_column_inner][vc_column_inner width=”3/4″][vc_column_text]Elena Kostychenko was one of Novaya Gazeta’s most fearless and fierce reporters, having covered complex stories all over Russia. She is also a feminist and LGBTQ activist, and in 2011 was left with a concussion after being attacked at a pride parade in Moscow. In 2016 Kostychenko was brutally beaten in Beslan while covering a protest of the mothers whose children died in the 2004 school terror attack. She is still recovering from psychological aftershocks, abroad.[/vc_column_text][/vc_column_inner][/vc_row_inner][/vc_column][/vc_row][vc_row][vc_column][vc_row_inner][vc_column_inner][vc_column_text]

528 press freedom violations in Russia verified by Mapping Media Freedom as of 27/9/2018

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Television presenter tells President Medvedev he often faces censorship

One of Russia’s best known television news presenters Alexey Pivovarov revealed the extent of state media censorship during President Dmitry Medvedv’s final interview before he hands power to Vladimir Putin.

During the wide-ranging interview with journalists from a number of the country’s major television channels, NTV host Pivovarov said: “The hand of the state is obviously seen in controlling federal TV channels’ editorial policy.” He added:

I regularly confront certain limitations, stipulated by political suitability. This [control] prevents me from fulfilling my professional duty – informing people of current events.

Medvedev denied censorship exists, pointing out the Russian constitution forbids it. He said that it is “natural that political influence is higher on bigger channels”, adding that “the question of censorship within a channel is a question of chemistry between the management, journalists and audience”.

Media observers believe Pivovarov’s brave expose will cost him his job at NTV. Pivovarov was already notorious for confronting NTV management, after the first mass protest against allegedly fraudulent parliamentary elections on Bolotnaya square. He delivered an ultimatum to his bosses, refusing to host the evening news if the channel did not cover the rally – in the end programmed bosses capitulated.

Last week, Russian Forbes quoted anonymous sources in NTV, who alleged several leading journalists have been forced out after clashing with NTV’s head Vladimir Kulistikov over censorship. Kulistikov denied the conflict, saying he is guided by ratings and not personal attitude in his policy. The journalists involved refused to comment.

Several NTV anchors have left the station in recent weeks: Pavel Lobkov, Nikolay Kartoziya, Anton Krasovsky.

NTV is notorious for censorship. The list of programmes and stories pulled in recent months includes, among others, a broadcast about kidnappings and tortures in Chechnya; news about Mikhail Khodorkovsky’s cellmate who assaulted him in prison; and coverage student arrests during Dmitry Medvedev’s visit to the journalism department of Moscow State University.

The channel also angered Russian opposition activists by airing a documentary claiming that election fraud protesters were paid for attending rallies. The programme is the subject of several defamation lawsuits.

Russian human rights activist Olga Romanova wrote on Facebook that no journalists who confront NTV’s management and fight for the freedom of speech could continue to work at the channel. Romanova emotionally added: “And let the ones who stay there burn in hell”

Opposition fury over NTV documentary

Opposition activists have sued Russian television station NTV after the channel aired the documentary “Anatomy of Protest”, which claimed people were paid to participate in recent mass protest rallies.

Eleven years ago thousands of people gathered in Moscow in support of Russian private NTV channel, protesting against state-owned Gazprom’s subsidiary — Gazprom Media Holding — buying it from media tycoon Vladimir Gusinsky. He had faced pressure from Vladimir Putin’s Kremlin to sell NTV (as well as “Echo of Moscow” radio station). That rally didn’t influence the transaction; NTV was passed into the hands of Gazprom-Media, which later fell under control of Yury Kovalchuk who is considered a close friend of Putin.

Eleven years have passed and Vladimir Putin has returned to power, ignoring mass protests against his third presidential run. Now NTV is the focus of another rally. This time some 300 people gathered near Ostankino TV tower on Sunday, protesting against NTV policy and particularly the documentary, which was aired twice last week suggesting people received money and cookies for protesting against Vladimir Putin.

Many of the protesters held placards reading “NTV lies”, flowers and old broken televisions “to mark NTV’s funeral as mass media”. Dozens of people were arrested, including opposition leaders Sergey Udaltsov and Boris Nemtsov. All were released by the following morning.

The arrests angered many, with complaints on NTV’s Facebook page, and “NTV Lies” hashtag trending on Twitter.

The Democratic Choice opposition movement has filed two lawsuits against NTV. One is for libel — the movement is demanding NTV withdraw statements in the documentary about opposition leaders hiring people to attend rallies and aiming to arrange provocations and bloody revolution in Russia.

The other lawsuit relates to Democratic Choice authors’ rights — the documentary included a video showing citizens of Kenya attending a rally in support of Vladimir Putin, who didn’t seem to understand the Russian language and could not explain at all why they supported Putin.

“Democratic Choice” activists claim the video was shot by them to show that Putin’s assessments of how many people actually supported him on rallies were controversial. The NTV documentary claimed that the Kenyans interviewed might have been hired by opposition activists.

A libel lawsuit against NTV was filed by politician Boris Nadezhdin, and opposition leader Boris Nemtsov has called for a  boycott of all NTV programmes. Bloggers have called on advertisers including Proсter & Gamble to pull the plug on the company. The company responded, saying it respects freedom of expression, but prefers to stay out of politics and doesn’t see itself as a party in this conflict.

Expert magazine editor-in-chief Valery Fadeev, who appeared in the NTV documentary, said his words were taken out of context. He added that not only his magazine, but the whole Expert publishing house is ending any cooperation with NTV.

Gazprom Media Holding denied the allegations, issuing a statement from the group head Nikolay Senkevich.

Senkevich said that NTV “covers each aspect of social life” and that calls to boycott the channel go against democratic principles. Andrey Isaev of Putin’s United Russia party called the opposition reaction to the documentary “hysterical”.

Russia’s journalists are divided by the controversial documentary. To some, working on NTV is still seen as a normal journalistic activity, as far as it doesn’t concern making Kremlin propaganda movies about Russian opposition. To others, it is no longer acceptable.

NTV censorship strikes again

A scandal is flaring in Russia as two segments for popular NTV programme “Unreal Politics” were shot and then blocked by NTV’s management.

The first one subjected the leader of a pro-government youth movement Nashi and the chairman of State Committee for Youth Vasily Yakemenko to criticism. Russia’s own Paris Hilton, Kseniya Sobchak, told the Unreal Politics hosts about her attempts to interview Yakemenko in one of the most expensive restaurants in Moscow. Sobchak failed, but recorded her talk with Yakemenko and then published the interview in the Internet. The video contained her sarcastic comments of how Yakemenko’s supposed expensive tastes doesn’t correspond to his public statements about economy drive.

The second item concerned President Medvedev’s visit to the journalism department of Moscow State University in October. Several students, not satisfied with Medvedev’s policy, were arrested when they trief to hold a protest. The censored piece contained an interview with one of them — Vera Kichanova.

On 7 November Unreal Politics co-host Andrey Kolesnikov said the programme was shut after the two broadcasts had been blocked. “It was my decision, though the channel didn’t have much of a choice after all”, Kolesnikov told journalists. He stressed that the two blocked items were “not blocked, but were simply not acccepted by NTV from a production company”. NTV  spokesperson Maria Bezborodova said the channel’s management blocked nothing, “having had no orders for these two items”. Both pieces are available on the web.

Neither Andrey Kolesnikov nor his co-host Tina Kandelaki are famous for their struggles for freedom of expression. Kolesnikov is a member of the Kremlin pool — a group of journalists accredited to cover president’s and top country’s officials activities. He is also the editor-in-chief in “Russian Pioneer” magazine, where he employed Vladimir Putin as a columnist. Kandelaki is the member of state Public Chamber.  That is why it’s no surprise that neither of the co-hosts referred to the incident as censorship, agreeing that “the channel’s management if free to decide the programme’s fate”.


NTV, owned by state energy company Gazprom subsidiary, is notorious for its moves to censor programmes. In October a broadcast about kidnappings and tortures in Chechnya was banned by the channel’s management. In May the channel blocked an item about former oligarch and Putin’s opponent Mikhail Khodorkovsky’s cellmate and his assault to Khodorkovsky in prison. In 2004 journalist Leonid Parfenov was fired from NTV after he interviewed Chechen Republic of Ichkeria president’s widow Malika Yandarbieva.