Captured by a CCTV camera late at night, a man on a bicycle with a food delivery backpack approaches the offices of Novaya Gazeta, Russia’s leading independent newspaper.
In grainy footage recorded in central Moscow earlier this month, the man sprays an unknown substance on the newspaper’s front door, then slowly walks away, being careful not to look at the camera.
Sitting in the office days later, editor-in-chief Dmitry Muratov told AFP he had no doubts that the “chemical attack” was the latest attempt to silence one of the few keen media in Russia. to challenge the official line.
“This is the use of military grade non-lethal toxic substances to warn newspaper staff or to get revenge on them,” said Muratov, a 59-year-old man with a gray beard who, since 1995, has was several times editor-in-chief of Novaya Gazeta. chief.
Several employees felt bad after the attack and it took days of cleaning to get rid of the horrible stench as the sprayed pavement strip had to be removed.
It was not the first attack on Novaya Gazeta, and far from the worst.
Since the early 2000s, six Novaya Gazeta journalists have been killed in the course of their work – their black-and-white portraits now hang in the newspaper’s office.
“It’s no secret that when they killed Anna Politkovskaya, I wanted to close this newspaper… This newspaper is dangerous for people’s lives,” says Muratov.
Politkovskaya, who spent years reporting for Novaya Gazeta about rights abuses and the Kremlin war in the North Caucasus region of Chechnya, was gunned down outside her apartment in 2006 at the age of 48.
“The newspaper’s journalists were categorically against this, they thought that we would violate the memory of Anna Politkovskaya if we closed… They convinced me,” Muratov said.
Muratov was one of a group of journalists who founded Novaya Gazeta in 1993, inspired by the freedoms regained after the collapse of the Soviet Union.
– unwanted “gifts” –
One of their first key supporters was former Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev, who donated part of his 1990 Nobel Peace Prize to buy the new publication its first computers – one of them. them always on display in their office.
The heady optimism of those early days is long gone. Since President Vladimir Putin came to power in 1999, critical voices have been increasingly sidelined in Russia.
But Novaya Gazeta soldiers continue, releasing reports of rights violations and corruption three times a week despite repeated attacks.
In 2018, his office received an unusual delivery of a funeral wreath and severed ram’s head with a note to Denis Korotkov, who covers the Wagner mercenary group.
His investigations shed light on Wagner’s overseas operations and his alleged ties to Kremlin-linked businessman Yevgeny Prigozhin.
Korotkov told AFP that despite these “gifts” and false articles written about him over the years, he has no plans to quit his job or leave the country.
“It’s quite difficult to do journalism about Russia outside of Russia,” he says, wearing his round sunglasses and smoking a pipe.
If every journalist who wanted to write the truth left Russia, he said, “then we would have a lot of single-use journalists in Russia.”
“You write a controversial story and then you go. You can have an entire colony somewhere. ”
More recently, the newspaper faced backlash on a report on extrajudicial detentions and killings in Chechnya based on the testimony of a former police officer.
A few days after the publication, a Chechen police regiment, rifles in hand, released a video addressed to Putin, accusing the newspaper of “vile attacks” on its members and saying they felt compelled to “stop the attacks”. insults ”.
– No intention to leave –
Survey author Yelena Milashina has been writing about Chechnya for almost two decades and says she never thought about quitting her post.
Three years after Politkovskaya’s murder, human rights activist and Novaya Gazeta contributor Natalia Estemirova was kidnapped from her home in the Chechen capital Grozny, then found dead with a gunshot to the head.
Milashina says the only way to oppose this type of attack is for journalists to keep working.
“So that the people who killed my colleagues understand that there will be another journalist who will continue to do their job. ”
Faced with this kind of pressure, many independent journalists have left Russia to settle elsewhere.
But Muratov says he’s optimistic that Novaya Gazeta will be able to stay relevant and continue reporting on the ground, thanks to “huge public support” from its readers.
The newspaper has a print edition of 90,000 copies and its website is visited by approximately 500,000 readers every day.
“We’re not going anywhere… We will live and work in Russia. ”
© 2021 AFP