This piece was produced as part of the Unsafe for Scrutiny project, which is kindly funded by the Justice for Journalists Foundation and was originally published on the Foreign Policy Centre website.
While Russia is cracking down on investigative journalists exposing corruption amongst its political elites, the UK’s political elites are failing to do enough to crack down on corruption exposed by investigative journalists.
The arrest of Roman Anin, Founder of iStories
On the evening of April 9th, the founder of investigative news website iStories, Roman Anin, received an unexpected visit from the police. In what has now become a routine occurrence for many Russian journalists, his house in Moscow was searched for seven hours, his electronics were seized and thoroughly examined. The investigators were especially interested in all non-Russian materials: documents in English, articles and even Roman’s photo from Stanford University, where he is posing with his course mates. There’s been some speculation on whether it is another attempt to forge a foreign intelligence agent story – something that’s already happening to a former Kommersant journalist, Ivan Safronov. The following day the office of iStories also suffered from a police raid. Roman himself was taken in for questioning in connection with a privacy invasion case, where he is listed as witness. The lawsuit was filed in 2016 by oligarch Igor Sechin’s ex-wife Olga, following Roman’s investigation about the family’s luxury yacht that served as a backdrop to many of her Instagram posts.The timing of the new onslaught on the Pulitzer winning journalist is intended to send a signal to him and his colleagues. Roman is also a member of the OCCRP network that investigated Panama Papers leaks, there little doubt that he is being harassed because of his work.
Russia is going through something of an investigative journalism boom. In 2020 alone, outlets such as iStories, Proekt media, the Insider and many more, produced an array of investigative blockbusters exposing the corrupt underbelly of the Russian elite. The mushrooming of these newsrooms corresponds to the Government’s tightening of the screws – increasing attempts to control the internet, a severe clampdown on civil protest and the persecution of independent journalists. The work that these new media organisations produce is a fightback against the increasingly authoritarian stance of the Government. In a country where citizens’ private data can be bought and sold on the black market like an old watch, the classic definitions of journalism are being replaced with something that is closer to private investigation work. And it pays off – among the most famous revelations of 2020 were the unveiling of Putin’s palace in Gelendzhik and his Crimean summerhouse; a peek inside the questionable dealings of Putin’s former son-in-law, Kirill Shamalov, that landed him an immense fortune;  and the discovery of Ramzan Kadyrov’s mysterious wife and her luxury properties in Moscow – to name a few.
The rebuttals issued by the Kremlin (including Putin himself) frame investigative media outlets as puppets of Western regimes with no agenda of their own. However, the backlash against anti-corruption activists and journalists shows that their work is perceived as a serious threat to the status quo. The whole world watched the saga of Alexei Navalny: from his Kremlin-backed poisoning and unmasking of his own murderers, to his return to Russia and inevitable arrest. Alexei’s health is deteriorating rapidly as he is being denied proper medical attention, while prosecutors propose to label organisations tied to him as extremist. This feels like a very critical moment for Russia. As of now, journalist Roman Anin is walking free but if his witness status is changed to the defendant, he will need all the publicity he can get to ensure his safety.
Russian corruption and British ‘Sleaze’
The UK has condemned the treatment of Alexei Navalny and imposed a new set of Magnitsky laws that target Russian individuals implicated in human rights abuses. But the critics note that the sanctions are not targeted enough. A new set of additional sanctions to be announced in spring is set to tackle corruption by introducing asset freezes and visa bans. Nonetheless, London remains a playground for rich and powerful Russians with unexplained wealth, who enjoy a plethora of financial and legal services to protect their status and reputation. The coveted ‘golden visa’ for individuals who invested £2m in the British economy has not been curtailed, despite the evidence that this fast track to residency does not have a sufficient enough screening process. The lack of effective pushback implies that the British political and business establishment is easily seduced by dirty money from countries with poor human rights record. Furthermore, the Russia Report that concluded that there was foreign interference into the Britain’s domestic politics was largely dismissed by the Conservative Government. In 2020, Prime Minister Boris Johnson’s appointed the son of an ex-KGB agent, Evgeny Lebedev as a life peer in a much criticised gesture.
Those who try to challenge the London ‘laundromat’ may expect a call to court. Journalist and writer, Catherine Belton, is currently being sued by Roman Abramovich for defamation over claims in her book, Putin’s People: How the KGB Took Back Russia and Then Took On the West, that the oligarch bought Chelsea football club on Putin’s orders. The Foreign Policy Centre’s report Unsafe for scrutiny details the ways in which London enables the flow of dirty money and offers legal services to reprimand journalists who investigate them with SLAPP lawsuits.
The recent Greensill revelations and a string of exposes surrounding the awarding of COVID-19 contracts to close contacts of the Conservative Party reveal that Britain has its own problems when it comes to corruption and the trafficking of influence. Terms such as ‘sleaze’, ‘chumocracy’ and ‘cronyism’ are euphemisms that obscure the true nature of the problem. Britain is in no position to wag its finger at the elite of other nations when it is mired in its own controversy and questionable dealings. In fact, the two are very much interlinked – those with the right political or social connections, including those with dubious links with foreign governments, are able to buy influence at the highest levels of government for relatively small amounts of money, with ex-civil servants, senior government advisors and former politicians happy to lobby on behalf of their paymasters. Britain readily employs the language of human rights and civil liberties, but it is little more than window dressing if it allows itself to be compromised by the ill-gotten cash and blood money of Russian elites, complicit in the destruction of civil liberties in their homeland, while enjoying the prestige of wealth and the protection of British law in London.