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Russia’s great export: hostility to the free press

In the new issue of Index on Censorship magazine founder of the Justice for Journalists Foundation (JFJ), Mikhail Khodorkovsky told how Russia leads the way in the tactics employed to silence journalists. Khodorkovsky also explores how autocratic countries are using everything from forced incarceration in psychiatric wards to banning journalism itself.

The article is presented below. It was originally published in the Index on Censorship magazine and is available via the link below.

THREE YEARS AGO, on 30 July 2019, the Russian journalists Orkhan Dzhemal, Aleksandr Rastogruev and Kirill Radchenko were brutally murdered in the Central African Republic while making a documentary about the dealings of military contractors Wagner Group. No official investigation of that crime took place, no justice was served to the criminals, and despite the independently collected evidence indicating the murderers, they are still enjoying impunity. On 30 July 2021, access to the Dossier Center website was blocked in Russia by a Moscow court request; the outlet had previously released an investigation into the journalists’ murder.

This dire situation is not unique to authoritarian countries like the Central African Republic or Russia. Murders, beatings, cyber-attacks, death threats, online abuse and repressive legislation are just a few of the methods used to silence journalists, hide the truth and deprive the public of the right to know.

According to data collected by the Justice for Journalists Foundation (JFJ) – an organisation created by my business partner and I as a tool to fight crimes against media workers worldwide – between 2017 till today, over 12,000 attacks on media workers took place in the 12 post-Soviet states, including 2,270 attacks in 2021. Representatives of authorities remain the main source of threats: in 57% of cases, they are behind physical attacks, in 52% – non-physical and cyber-attacks and in 88% – attacks via judicial and economic means.

Although not the most common, one of the most worrying punitive measures against media workers is the tried and tested Soviet anti-dissident method of forced incarceration in psychiatric institutions. Since 2017, JFJ has recorded ten attacks of this type in Uzbekistan, Kazakhstan, Crimea, and Russia – the leader in using this inhumane method.

Increasingly, independent journalists are subjected to systematic persecution using tools from two or more categories of assaults. Azerbaijan, Belarus, Kazakhstan, Russia and Uzbekistan are among the countries that practise systematic hybrid attacks against singled-out journalists using a variety of different types of persecutions. As a result, media workers have been forced to quit the profession, emigrate or even, succumbing to intolerable pressure, take their own lives as Russia’s Irina Slavina did.

Azerbaijani investigative journalist Khadija Ismayilova is one of the victims of a hybrid attack; she was threatened, harassed, attacked and sent to prison for her work in pursuing the truth about the Azerbaijani government. In 2011, after the publication of the Panama Papers, a secret camera was installed into her house and videos recorded were used to blackmail her. She was recently revealed to be one of 180 journalists worldwide targeted by the infamous Pegasus spyware, developed by the NSO Group.

In 2021, the Russian authorities have expanded the lists of “foreign agents” and “undesirable organisations”, including more news outlets and journalists. The government makes it impossible for independent media workers to work there. Currently, there are 34 entities and individuals in the “foreign agent” registry, 17 of which were added in 2021.

This technique, also prevalent in Belarus, effectively prohibits media outlets from publishing anything, prevents co-operation with foreign media outlets without accreditation, levies fines in the millions if information is not removed, criminalises fake news and prosecutes of individuals and legal entities for dealing with “undesirable” or “extremist” organisations.

The harassment of journalists includes searches, seizures of personal belongings, documents and equipment, opening criminal cases on trumped-up charges, and, as ever, smear campaigns on state-owned television channels.

Most prominent Russian-language investigative and news outlets, such as Proekt, Meduza, Open Media, VTimes, The Insider and others have been forced to shut down or move abroad to continue their operations.

Murders, beatings, cyber-attacks, death threats, online abuse are just a few of the methods used to silence journalists

Unfortunately, the pressure does not stop when journalists emigrate. Tajikistani independent journalists who were forced to leave the country still face constant pressure from the authorities. Discrediting materials are published by state TV channels and online news outlets, while journalists’ relatives are prosecuted and physically attacked.

Those who are not able to leave face dire conditions. In Belarus, at least 29 media workers are awaiting trial in detention centres or under the house arrest. Belsat TV journalists Katsiaryna Bakhvalava (Andreyeva) and Darya Chultsova are already serving their two years’ sentence in a penal colony. Pershiy Region correspondent Siarhei Hardziyevich was sentenced to 18 months for insulting and defaming Belarusian president Alexander Lukashenko, as well as two police officers in a Telegram chat.

It is the seemingly endless abuse of power by state authorities in countries with flawed or no democracy that is making vexatious legal threats and quasi-legal attacks against journalists virtually impossible to withstand. The Covid-19 pandemic gave rise to more anti-free speech laws and actions, and non-democratic governments embraced this pretext to enhance censorship, increase arrests of media workers, persecution and close the last remaining independent media outlets.

Turkmenistan, the dictatorship consistently rated one of the worst in the Reporters without Borders’ Media Freedom ranking, demonstrates the possible climax of this trend. No independent media remains in the country, almost no independent information is coming out of it, and the only resident journalist openly cooperating with foreign outlets is 71-year-old Soltan Achilova, who is constantly subjected to beatings, detentions and other assaults.

Flowers near the Central House of Journalists in memory of Kirill Radchenko, Orkhan Dzhemal and Alexander Rastorguyev, murdered in the Central African Republic in 2018.

However, it is not just the autocracies with no rule of law who are silencing all sources of independent information: we are witnessing the export of quasi-legal methods of attacks against journalists from these rogue countries to Europe and the UK. The UK legal system is increasingly used as a base of operations for judicial tourism by people of questionable morals who want to avoid publicity around their corrupt dealings. British legal and reputation-laundering companies are heavily investing their talent, influence and connections into helping them, essentially, to silence the free media worldwide.

Kremlin-affiliated businessmen are no exception. They are using the British judicial system to pursue journalists. In this context, it is noteworthy that a number of Russian businessmen and Russian affiliates are currently bringing libel proceedings against Catherine Belton in relation to her book Putin’s People. While this claim is still ongoing and it may be that the court will find that their complaints about the book are justified or fair, the effect of a high profile claim brought by people of enormous wealth is to make all other investigators and reporters excessively cautious.

It is crucial to know there are unlimited financial resources in the hands of their opponents, and possibly other Kremlin resources too. The public good requires particularly strong protection.

Vexatious legal threats and what have become known as strategic lawsuits against public participation (SLAPPs) are now preventing the public worldwide from knowing what they don’t know. Being subjects of the litigation, journalists can’t talk about their cases without facing further legal threats. Although people are entitled to defend a reputation unfairly damaged, there is always a risk that the goal of some libel litigation could be far from finding justice or defending reputations, but to bury evidence of wrongdoing under a heap of vexatious lawsuits and demotivate other journalists.

JFJ is wholeheartedly supporting initiatives by media workers, NGOs and government institutions to enhance their expertise on the issue and doing everything possible to support the fundamental democratic institution – free and independent reporting.