At first, Roman Anin had no idea why Russian FSB security agents were standing outside his apartment – although he was far from surprised by their arrival.
As one of Russia’s foremost investigative journalists and one of the few who wanted to dig deeper into the financial transactions of those in and around the Kremlin, the 34-year-old knew that the legal issues were perhaps only one story. Staff at the iStories site he founded last year have held seminars with lawyers – training for when the FSB arrives.
But when the team of officers arrived at Mr. Anin’s door on April 9 and searched for seven hours – without explaining their presence as they ransacked his apartment as well as the iStories offices (the ” (i “means” important “) – it marked the start of an increased crackdown on independent media and freedom of expression in Russia, a country that already had little of both.
In addition to Mr. Anin and iStories, the pressure campaign saw Meduza, one of the best-read Russian-language news sites, declared a “foreign agent” and four editors of a student magazine. accused of criminal prosecution.
The media crackdown came alongside an official move to brand the country’s main opposition movement – the Anti-Corruption Foundation led by jailed Alexey Navalny – as an “extremist group” after staging a series of mass protests against the authoritarian regime of President Vladimir. Putin. The Anti-Corruption Foundation disbanded last week rather than let its staff face potential charges of extremism, which can lead to heavy prison sentences.
Journalists who covered the latest protests in support of Mr Navalny – who survived a poisoning attempt last summer, before being arrested on his return to Russia for violating his parole while receiving vital medical care in Germany – were visited at home. by police officers. They were asked to provide proof of their participation in the April 21 rally as journalists and not as opposition activists.
The campaign appears designed to intimidate those working in the already limited space available to independent Russian media.
In Mr. Anin’s case, it took him until the day after the raid on his apartment to deduce that it was a five-year investigation into one of the world’s most luxurious yachts that was the cause of his legal issues.
Mr. Anin has since been questioned as a “witness” in a privacy breach case. The problem is his 2016 report for the newspaper Novaya Gazeta, which found that a multi-million dollar yacht – equipped with its own gym, swimming pool and helicopter – was owned by the wife of ‘Igor Sechin, the head of the public company Rosneft Oil. company, and a close ally of Mr. Putin. Mr Anin believes he could possibly be charged with a felony in the case, which could mean a sentence of up to four years in prison.
“It is obvious that the Russian authorities have decided to crack down on the media and shut down all critical voices,” Mr. Anin said in an interview.
Five days after the raid on Mr. Anin’s apartment, police arrested four editors of a student magazine, DOXA, and charged them with inciting minors to participate in “dangerous activities”. The charges, which stem from DOXA’s coverage of January protests in Moscow and other cities following Mr Navalny’s arrest, could result in three-year prison sentences for young journalists.
The four were barred from leaving their homes or using the internet until they were tried on June 14.
Natalia Zviagina, director of Amnesty International’s Moscow office, called the raid on DOXA a “new hollow” for press freedom in a country that was already a dangerous place to be a journalist. (The Committee to Protect Journalists says at least 28 journalists have been killed since Mr. Putin came to power in 2000.) “Silencing those brave enough to speak out – including students – ends the future of press freedom in Russia, ”Ms. Zviagina said in a statement.
Read an open letter from Russian journalists on media crackdown
On April 23, the Justice Ministry turned to Meduza and declared that the Latvian-based organization, which receives millions of unique visitors to its website every day, was a “foreign agent”.
It is a designation which has already been used to curb the activities of human rights organizations and other civil society groups, and which considerably complicates the work of Meduza. The news portal was founded in 2014 by Russian journalists who moved to neighboring Latvia to escape their country’s declining freedom of expression.
Editor-in-chief Ivan Kolpakov said the foreign agent label was “toxic” to Russia-based Meduza reporting staff because it could also apply to individual journalists. This would require them to provide statements on their income and expenses to the Department of Justice, which would open them to possible prosecution. “It’s the easiest way to intimidate any journalist in Russia. Anyone who collaborates with Meduza takes a risk. “
Each article in the Russian version of the Meduza website is now accompanied by a bold statement above the text, warning readers that the material was produced by “mass media performing the functions of a foreign agent” . The disclaimer is followed by three face-palm emojis that the editors themselves have added.
Mr Kolpakov said the designation shattered Meduza’s business model by scaring the advertisers the website relied on, forcing the organization last week to launch its first crowdfunding effort. Mr Kolpakov said he was not optimistic that donations from readers could replace rapidly disappearing ad revenue. “I don’t know how long we can go on. Every day we lose our [advertising] clients. »
The crackdown is reminiscent of Mr. Putin’s first term as president in the early 2000s, when the Kremlin moved one by one to wrest control of the country’s main television channels from the country’s powerful oligarchs. Being able to dictate the TV news agenda has helped keep Mr. Putin’s personal approval ratings high over the past two decades, even as Russia has gone through wars, economic crises and now a poorly managed pandemic under his leadership.
The next target was the print media, and over the past decade Russian newspapers have been methodically bought up by pro-Kremlin companies. Now the Kremlin seems to have turned its attention to the internet, where most of Mr. Navalny’s young followers get their information.
Mr Putin’s spokesman Dmitry Peskov was dismissive last week when asked about Meduza’s fate at a press conference. “The modern media market is organized in such a way that the disappearance of all media will not be felt strongly. Let’s be honest. He also suggested that DOXA had created problems for itself by moving away from student and political issues.
Mr. Kolpakov said the crackdown reflected the growing strength of the “security wing” of Mr. Putin’s regime, as well as the belief inside the Kremlin that Russia’s woes – the stagnant economy and unrest growing policies – were all part of an alien plot. . “The way they explain themselves is that foreign states are trying to interfere in the political situation in Russia.”
Mr Anin said two campaigns against Mr Navalny’s supporters and the independent media revealed how paranoid the Kremlin has become. “Any critical voice is a threat to them now.”
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