On Thursday this week a court in Yekaterinburg issued a two year suspended sentence to a journalist, Aksana Panova, for extortion. The sentence came with an unheard of addition: Panova is banned from working in media for two years. That the grounds for the conviction are ropey at best is worrying enough, though unsurprising for Russia’s current judiciary, but the gag order on a journalist is a very dark sign. The case combines two threads of President Putin’s attempts to maintain control of Russia. The first is his ever-present clampdown on independent media in the country, the second is an attempt to damage any political figure who may present a threat to United Russia’s grip on power.
Aksana Panova was the founder of ura.ru, a highly successful regional news site that was well- respected as a critic of political ineffectiveness, exemplified by their highly popular campaign to improve Yekaterinburg’s roads. The website came under attack however, and was pushed into a share buyout after blackouts and computer hacks, followed by a phone call from a government agent. The buyers, Artyom Bykov and Alexei Bobrov, claimed that they had been ordered to purchase the company. The new governor of the Sverdlovsk region, Yevgeny Kuivashev (appointed directly by the Kremlin,) attempted to court Panova, both politically and romantically, apparently ringing her up to 10 times a day and texting her his declarations of love. His approaches failed. According to Yulia Latynina of Echo Moskvy:
Flying from Moscow to Yekaterinburg, he drove directly from the airport to Panova’s home to tell her the news. She came out wearing a bathrobe and he said: “You’ll be the first to know. I was appointed governor.” She snapped back: “What have you done? You’ve stolen our election. We’ll rally the people in protest.”
Kuivashev brought charges against Panova’s boyfriend, future mayor Yevgeny Roizman, and his City Without Drugs organisation, and charged her with extortion. After continued interference in the websites activities, including the arrest of their accountant, Panova and her staff left to start znak.com to carry on their work. Panova’s harassment continued, culminating in the still birth of her child following intense interrogation and sleep deprivation by investigators. Panova says that investigators were dispatched to the morgue to photograph her child to verify the death to superiors. Znak.com has continued to provide critical and thorough reporting on the region, and the campaign against Panova went on unabated, even more so once she became the campaign manager for her boyfriend’s run for mayor of Yekaterinburg. The authorities opened the online silage tanks to discredit her, including whole websites dedicated to defaming her, both professionally, and personally.
The charges of extortion, for which she has now been convicted, came from Konstantin Kremko, a businessman who claims that in 2007, Panova extorted 1 million rubles for refraining from publishing negative stories about his company. Kremko apparently remembered this crime in 2012, giving inconsistent and inaccurate testimony. Despite massive irregularities in the prosecution’s case, accusations of bogus witnesses, and a massive campaign from fellow journalists across Russia on her behalf, Panova has now been barred from working as a journalist for two years. While she is making an appeal, it seems clear that the aim of the authorities was to gag her. While the effectiveness of such an order is uncertain, (the definition of her ban does not seem to preclude blogging or correspondence with other journalists,) the move represents a new way for Russian authorities to silence dissent while claiming to be lenient. The issuing of a suspended sentence echoes that given to Alexei Nalvany during the Kirovles trial. The government may brand someone a criminal, but avoids appearing too brutal.
But beyond her work as a journalist, which angered regional authorities, it is her close relationship to Roizman which may have exposed her to threats from the Kremlin itself. Roizman is a controversial figure. His famous drug program has been haunted by reports of brutality and abuse, and indeed he has made disturbing comments about drug addicts in public that suggest little care for their rights, instead viewing them as a problem to be treated by any means necessary. There are also rumors of links to the mafia, though these are claimed by some to be smears carried out by the authorities. Roizman has been very careful to avoid open criticism of the government, claiming that he is ready to work with United Russia. But his sheer popularity and independence make him a target for the Kremlin. His genuine political power is strictly limited by the powers of the regional governor, but Roizman has recently campaigned to give Yekaterinburg, Russia’s 4th largest city, federal status. This would put the city on par with Moscow and St. Petersburg, freeing it of regional government.
Roizman’s was elected after a vote marred by allegations of fraud on behalf of Kuivashev’s campaigners. His campaign echoed that of Alexei Navalny’s for Moscow mayor at the same time. Putin’s tolerance for such independent political figures is strictly limited, and any means will be taken to discredit them. Going after a personal weak point of Roizman’s, his partner, would be a natural move for the Kremlin.
Being an independent journalist in Russia is dangerous enough without being romantically involved with a potential political challenger.