Attacks on Russian Journalists Indicate Return to Soviet Practices, New Forms of Repression in the Internet Age

October 4, 2016
Journalist Grigory Pasko. Photo via Fund 19/29.

Attacks on Russian Journalists Indicate Return to Soviet Practices, New Forms of Repression in the Internet Age

President Vladimir Putin has been steadily dismantling the independent press since coming to power in 2000. Some outlets have completely lost their independence and others still proclaiming independence are under immense pressure. In recent weeks, both before and after the September 18 elections, a rash of physical attacks on journalists, detentions of reporters, and a major lawsuit have continued to erode press freedom.

o Potentially Crippling Lawsuit Filed by Rosneft Against RBC

Rosneft, the leading Russian state oil extraction and refinement company headed by Igor Sechin, has filed suit against RBC and three of its journalists for alleged “business reputational damage,” seeking 3.124 billion rubles (about $50 million) in compensation.
The claim stems from a report that still remains online, “Sechin Asks Government to Protect Rosneft from BP,” written by Timofey Dzyadko, Lyudmila Podobedova, and Maksim Tovkaylo. The journalists cite government sources who said that in the privatization of 19.5% of Rosneft’s stock, the Kremlin was asking prospective investors not to make any deals with BP which owns 19.75% of the stock. Supposedly fearing that a new shareholder could team up with BP to create a blocking number of shares, government officials insisted that at least two Asian companies or funds should buy the shares. 
Rosneft immediately declared the story “false” and “baseless fantasy of journalists or their so-called sources.”
Fyodor Kravchenko, a media lawyer, said that it would be difficult for Rosneft to prove lost revenue over the RBC article, but it would be easier to show the more intangible “damage to business reputation” in court. Even so, the trend for judges at the Higher Arbitration Court was to demand that such high sums not be sought, and since 2005, they have generally not ruled in favor of such suits.
RBC underwent an upheaval earlier this year when its top three journalists were fired after an article appeared about how President Vladimir Putin’s daughter and RBC’s owners were put under investigation about alleged offshore activity. New editors from TASS were installed to maintain order.

As anti-corruption campaigner Alexei Navalny put it on his blog, “if Sechin wins the case against RBC (and yes, he could), then he will simply take over the publication.”

RBC’s annual revenue is less than what they would be asked to pay if Sechin is successful in pressing the sum named in his suit.

Navalny himself, who has both lost and fended off a number of libel suits, posted an item titled “Let’s Violate Court Bans and Say Hello to Igor Ivanovich,” a reference to Sechin’s first name and patronymic.
Navalny says Sechin has successfully stopped anyone who has written about his compensation at Rosneft, his yacht or his home; he recalled one ruling that ordered the physical destruction of a whole print run of Vedomosti on Sechin’s  $58.5 million home in the prestigious suburban area of Rublyovka.

“Why am I publishing this video?” asks Navalny. “Because I hate thieves and corrupt people, and I hate even more the judges that cover for them.” Navalny has begun adding English-language sub-titles to his videos.

o Investigative Journalist Pasko Assaulted in Barnaul 

Grigory Pasko, an investigative journalist, was assaulted in the southern Siberian republic of Altai on September 27, the New-York based advocacy group Committee to Protect Journalists reported, citing Pasko’s Facebook page.

Pasko, a formal Naval officer, served four years in prison on charges of espionage for publicizing environmental damage. 

Pasko had traveled to Barnaul on September 26 to run a seminar for journalists organized by the Czech organization Fund 19/29 Association of Investigative Journalists (Sdružení investigativních novinářů – Fond 19/29), where he serves as director.

For some time, his organization had held training seminars in conjunction with local university journalism departments. But recently some of them had become reluctant to participate. The Russian Ministry of Justice had liquidated the Russian branch of Fund 19/29 in August.

But in Barnaul, Fund 19/29’s partner Altapress nevertheless went head with plans for the meeting. When the journalists arrived at the hall, an unknown man came and stared at Pasko for some time then left. Then, that night, police came and wrote down the names of all the participants and demanded to see their passports, claiming they needed to check “if they were migrants.”

Pasko noted that his group had never had any inspections of this type since 2009 when they began working in Russia. Then colleagues pointed out that a threatening blog had been written about Pasko that week.

On the night of the 27th, he was returning to his hotel when in front of the city administration building two men of athletic build, about 35-40 years in jeans and t-shirts, came up to him. One then suddenly punched him so hard in the head that he fell down. Pasko scrambled up and was about to hit the assailant back when he shouted to the second man, “What are you standing there for? Beat him up!”
But for some reason the second man turned and walked away, and the first man then shouted, “Get out of our town! We’ll come after you!” They then walked away but broke into a run when they saw someone apparently waiting for them with a car.
Pasko immediately went to the police station to file a complaint, and was sent for a medical exam, where the doctor told Pasko to see his personal physician. He returned to the hotel and found someone who seemed to be watching him. He warned the hotel manager that he had been threatened with further harassment. 

While Pasko and his colleagues had faced attacks in various provincial cities and had been called “fifth columnists” and “State Department lackeys,” they had not faced direct police intervention or a physical assault. He believes the purpose was to intimidate journalists from such independent contacts. Nevertheless, he decided to continue the seminar the next day.

o Video Journalist Sotnik Flees Abroad After Threats 

Shortly after the September 18 elections, Aleksandr Sotnik, a well-known video journalist with a popular YouTube channel called Sotnik TV, announced in a video that he was forced to flee Russia due to threats. He said that an anonymous caller threatened to “turn him into a vegetable” if he did not stop his critical reporting.

Sotnik told the Committee to Protect Journalists that he had faced a number of threats accompanied by physical surveillance which he believed was the work of the FSB.

Sotnik was known for his man-in-the-street live interviews and frank commentary on the wars in Ukraine and Syria. He said he expected not to emigrate but wished to return to Russia. He has continued to post videos to his site using reporters who remain in Russia, such as one posted this week which interviewed ordinary people on the street who said that the “whole world has ganged up on Russia,” accusing it of responsibility for MH17.

o KGB Chief’s Granddaughter and Former Deputy Sue Ekho Moskvy for ‘Blackening’ His Memory 

Aleksandr Khinshtein, a journalist and former State Duma deputy, and Vera Serova, the grand-daughter of Ivan Serov, the KGB’s first chairman, have filed a lawsuit in court against Ekho Moskvy for 2 million rubles ($31,828) for “disseminating information that damages their honor and dignity,” Meduza reported.

The charges stem from Ekho Moskvy‘s radio show “Dilettante” on July 14, 2016 in which historian Boris Sokolov maintained that recently published memoirs and a diary from Ivan Serov were a fabrication by their editor, Khinshtein, with the purpose of rehabilitating Serov.

Serov, the head of the NKVD and KGB secret police as well as the GRU (military intelligence), was known for his role in the massacre of hundreds of thousands of Ukrainian peasants and for crushing the Hungarian revolution, as well as for his infamous boast that he could “break every bone in a man’s body without killing him.”

Khinshtein and Serova also sought an additional 500,000 rubles ($7,960) in damages personally from Sokolov.

Aleksandr Venediktov, editor-in-chief of Ekho Moskvy, seemed to take the latest threat to the radio in stride:

Translation: the grand daughter of Army General Serov has sued historian Boris Sokolov and Ekho Moskvy. For blackening the memory of her grandfather. Well, what of it, let’s talk about Serov.

A problem in Russia is that the crimes of Stalin were never tried, with the exception of a very few individual perpetrators. So the well-known mass crimes against humanity by figures like Serov were never publicized, prosecuted and explained to the public. Therefore the history of the Communist era becomes subject to political manipulation

o Fontanka Reporter Korotkov on Trial for Exposing Election Fraud

Denis Korotkov, an investigative journalist for Fontanka best known for his work on the Wagner private military contractors in Syria, was handed an administrative warning at a court hearing on September 28 for reporting on election fraud, reported.

Korotkov posed as a voter and voted multiple times after being bused among polling stations in St. Petersburg in the tactic known in the region as “carousel voting.” 

o Popular Blogger Nossik Fined $8,000 for ‘Hate’ Post on Syria
Anton Nossik, a well-known LiveJournal blogger, was fined 500,000 rubles ($8,000) for a blog post welcoming the Russian bombing campaign in Syria which began in September 2015 and calling for Putin to “wipe Syria off the map,” The Times of Israel reported.
Nossik, who has dual Russian and Israeli citizenship, said Syria had always been a “serious military threat” to Israel:
Opposition figures were quick to point out the irony of putting Nossik on trial while Russian forces were being accused by the West of potential war crimes in Syria

“As Russian troops are storming Aleppo, I am being judged in Moscow for supporting this assault,” Nossik was quoted as saying in court by firebrand opposition leader Alexei Navalny.

Nossik’s lawyer, Sergei Badamshin joked in an op-ed that his client was the first person to be “accused of openly supporting Vladimir Putin.”

o Reporters Detained for Covering Oil Spill

Journalists Maksim Polyakov and Vladimir Prokushev were detained for two hours on October 1 for filming an oil spill with a drone in the town of Usinsk in the Komi Republic, Moscow Times reported, citing the 7×7 news site.

The journalists believe Lukoil had asked the Interior Ministry to bring them in for questioning after they blamed the energy company for the spill. 
Police confiscated the drone, claiming it had to be registered, but then later returned it when lawyers insisted that under Russian law, only drones over 30 kg must be registered, and this one weighed less than 5 kilos.

Lukoil denied any involvement in the spill.

o Trial Pending for Blogger Krasnov Accused of Insulting Religious Believers with Comment ‘There is No God’ 

In March, Viktor Krasnov, a user on Russia’s most popular social network VKontakte, was tried for writing a post that was said to “insult religious believers” in which he said “there is no God” and “the Bible is a collection of Jewish stories,” reported. He was charged with the criminal offense of “insulting the feelings of believers” under a law passed in 2013. 
Krasnov’s exchanges with a soldier from Abkhazia, Aleksandr Kravtsov, and a local resident, Dmitry Burnyashev, posted in a local VKontakte group called “Overheard in Stavropol,” served as a basis for complaint to police about his statements.
Agora, the legal defense group, wrote that despite various procedural errors, the case was not returned to the prosecutor. The prosecution requested the entire set of communications from the group “Overhead in Stavropol” from the dates October 11-31, 2014. Then the plaintiffs did not appear for the court hearing.
The court summoned Kravtsov to the next hearing from Abkhazia, and he said he had deleted his own comments from the group and had filed a complaint against Krasnov to the Interior Ministry’s E Center [Anti-Extremism Center] and local police.
The VKontakte group “There is No God” was blocked by court order in July, but then unblocked five days later after certain “offensive” materials were removed.
During his trial, Krasnov complained of anonymous threats against him delivered from fake accounts on social media.
In June, Krasnov’s lawyer, Andrei Sabinin, wrote on his Facebook page that the case had been suspended pending further “forensic analysis,” reported.
Sabinin hopes that the case may be converted from a criminal offense to an administrative offense under Art. 5-26 of the administrative code (violation of the law on freedom of conscience, freedom of belief and religious associations). He explained that court experts would have to determine whether the now one-sided posts, with answers removed by Kravtsov, could still serve as actionable, whether any of Krasnov’s lexicon contain insulting terms, and lastly whether his remarks were “a claim, an opinion, or an evaluation.”
Last year, Krasnov was forced to undergo a “psychological and linguistic examination” by three specialists from the Ministry of Justice’s North Caucasus Regional Center for Forensics. Two psychologists and a linguist questioned him in an exam which journalist Denis Yatsutko characterized as “incompetent.” But the result was internment of Krasnov for one month in a psychiatric hospital, after which he was declared fit to stand trial.

These cases are only a sample of attacks on journalists, including some of the major ones; there have been numerous cases of bloggers, especially in the provinces, who have been harassed or jailed for their writings. There is a pattern not only of a return to oppressive Soviet practices but of new forms of repression, adapted to the Internet age.

— Catherine A. Fitzpatrick