If you were to read only one paragraph to get a feeling of what`s wrong with the setting we have to work in here in Russia, consider this one. Just by articulating these words, I potentially expose myself to the charge of treason. According to the Russian Penal Code deeds that fall under it, consist of “providing financial, technical, consultative or other ways of assistance to a foreign state, an international or foreign organization or its representative.” “Other ways” it is. The only point our investigators would actually need to prove is that FPC publications – or this particular one – are “directed against Russia’s security”. That would be perfectly enough. Considering the non-defined term “security” has a multitude of meanings and the fact that Russian prosecutors are known for their exceptional resourcefulness the option cannot really be excluded. And that means a closed trial with a sentence ranging from 12 to 20 years in prison.
I can also be legally stamped as an individual “exercising the duties of a foreign agent”. This would equate me to a “foreign agent NGO” which subjects a person or organisation to a number of bureaucratic and legal hardships. To be fair one doesn`t need to come up with his own article to achieve this statute. A mere Facebook-repost or retweet from a page of a “foreign agent media” (let`s say RFE/RL) would be sufficient providing you have ever got a penny (can be a gift too) from foreigners or a Russian entity that in turn has received a penny from a foreign one. No relation between the action and the payment is required. The wording of this law is so broad that it actually contains a peculiar legislative expression “might be recognized” that makes its application officially voluntarist. 
Those two theoretical repercussions clearly show both the direction Russian policymakers have taken in recent years and the approach they have adopted. Any influence from abroad, and now even contact with foreigners, are perceived by the State as a menace. The countermeasures consist of a constantly growing pile of vaguely formulated impracticable pieces of legislature. In a way, those laws are not intentioned to be abided by. Their main purpose is to have a legal pretext to prosecute any citizen or organisation at will and at any given moment. And while the examples above relate to cross-border cooperation the same convenient “no man without a guilt” logic can be traced to many other contemporary Russian laws: on mass gatherings, on electoral procedures, on extremism, on Internet regulations and media licensing. The only thing left to do is to hand pick the ones to be enforced. In some unforeseen cases where current legislation is not applicable, there is no shortage of tamed judges to cover up for it.
This strategy of “universal guilt – selective repressions” is, of course, primarily aimed at all forms of dissent. Therefore, the main victims are institutions and individuals that have enough power and recognition to raise their voices against all sorts of injustice or corruption. This makes media and journalists one of the prime targets.
Silencing faultfinders was Putin`s trademark style from the very beginning. It has just got uglier over time. Back in 2001, one of the first things Putin arranged as a President was a crackdown on an independent TV station NTV – and its effective nationalisation. It took several years to consolidate the rest of the TV-stations with political broadcasting. However, the Kremlin`s fight for media dominance was far from over and with Putin`s third term the bell rang for the rest – not only most of the small regional newspapers but also the prominent and well-established federal news holdings. Once independent and powerful media, like Kommersant, Vedomosti, RBC, Forbes or Lenta.ru, were all reduced to the shadow of their own former glory. The owners are now either directly connected to Putin`s inner circle or unwilling to take risks of crossing the lines drawn by Kremlin media-strategists, with the best journalists fired or gone. Very few traditional media outlets managed to keep independence but even those have to make regular compromises to survive.
There are several ways of forcing the Russian-based media into self-censorship even if the Kremlin or its proxies do not directly control it.
Obviously, the owner can be pressured. Recent history knows some brutal examples such as police raid on owner`s headquarters. But that`s rare. In most cases a more subtle behind-the-scenes chat is more than enough – experienced media managers have learned their lessons.
There is a formal way too. According to Russian law, the registration of a media can be revoked if it gets two official “warnings” in one year. Pretexts galore, it doesn`t pose much of a problem for a regulator to find one.
To minimise the risks many new media, including our iStories, have opted to be registered abroad. This actually suits the Kremlin – as its eternal argument of the foreign interference becomes easier to sell. The Russian Government obviously noted the trend and responded accordingly. The above-mentioned legislation on “media acting as foreign agents” have been adopted. It was supplemented by a much harsher law on “undesirable organizations” that gives the Russian Government the power to ban the activities of foreign or international NGOs, under vaguely defined security pretexts and without any judicial review. No Russian citizen is allowed to cooperate with one. This law has already been deployed to ban the Open Russia movement, founded by exiled critic and former prisoner of conscience Mikhail Khodorkovsky. One of its former employees is currently under trial facing six years in prison for taking part in an educational seminar. Police routinely raid the premises belonging to Open Russia and the MBKh media outlet, also financed by Khodorkovsky, as well as the homes of the journalists collaborating with them.
The Internet became a battleground too. A decade ago, its users were considered a puny minority and therefore the Internet was left to thrive according to its own self-administered rules. The crackdown on conventional media coincided with the development of technology bringing the number of Russian Internet users in 2020 to 118 million – roughly three quarters of the population. A lot of media outlets have minimised their offline presence and gone predominantly online. Therefore, something had to be done to make the virtual world as manageable as the real one.
With the arrival of Putin`s third term legislative pressure started to mount in this aspect too. The concept of a “sovereign Internet” was hammered out and partially implemented. It gives government full control over the infrastructure of the Russian segment of the Web. On top of it, we now have a whole pile of “offline” laws amended to make virtual acts and words as punishable as real-world offences. That made most active internet users – including media and journalists – subject to blocks or even prosecution. I.e. these days one can easily get a prison sentence for a tweet containing a call to come to an “unsanctioned” demonstration – according to Russian judges that can make you an organiser of such a rally.
Extrajudicial Internet blocking of the entire website of a stubborn media became an option. The first time that Internet users with a Russian IP-address were denied access to an officially registered media outlet was Grani.ru in 2014. This online daily was blocked over content, which allegedly promoted acts of mass disorder together with two other opposition media sites. The offending material was not specified thus leaving the editorial board with no option to remove it in order to restore access. This block has been in place ever since despite the recent ruling of the European Court of Human Rights that had found it to be in violation of Article 10 (right to freedom of expression) of the European Convention on Human Rights.
Construction of ‘The Great Russian Firewall’ is almost certain to continue. Russian power players dream big. For example, the head of the Investigative Committee of the Russian Federation (country’s main federal level investigative body) Alexander Bastrykin advocates for this to be “the experience of the countries that are resisting USA and its allies”. Meaning China. Bastrykin lauds Chinese law banning all electronic media that have foreign residents among its shareholders. According to Bastrykin such media are not allowed into the Chinese segment of the Internet and Chinese media need an explicit permission from the Ministry of information to cooperate with them. National media is to be administered by Chinese citizens only. The servers of the electronic media are to be maintained on the territory of China. “These practices could be adopted in Russia”, – concluded Bastrykin.
Obviously, the good old ways are still employed as well. Oligarchs with ties to the Kremlin, be it Deripaska, Kerimov or Sechin, routinely and without much of a problem sue media organisations (including the foreign ones) in Russian courts forcing them to retract the mention of facts that are sometimes well-known for decades. Some legal attacks are aimed not at the truth but at the journalists themselves. Among the most recent examples, is the trial of a journalist from Pskov Svetlana Prokopieva who was found guilty of justifying terrorism because she suggested that the suicide bombing of the FSB headquarters in the city could be related to the social and political situation in Russia and the restrictions on political and civil liberties. Ivan Safronov, a former reporter for Russian business daily Kommersant, was fired over an article about a possible reshuffle of President Vladimir Putin’s close allies last year. Several months later, he was arrested and charged with treason. He is now awaiting a closed trial, facing up to 20 years in prison. Quite like his son, Safronov`s father, also named Ivan, was a well-known military correspondent who was presumably killed in 2007.
24 journalists have been murdered since Putin`s first inauguration in 2000. Only one case was fully investigated. Dozens more colleagues have been attacked, beaten and intimidated. Now poisoned too. And even if we cannot say the Kremlin is the one to arrange all of these it is directly responsible for the atmosphere of impunity that makes the physical assault of a journalist a valid problem-solving option for powerful people.
The combination of those ‘good old’ methods with the new ones described above produce the intended chilling effect. Many journalists and media organisations that used to deal with political reporting have changed occupation, others switched to more innocent subjects or resorted to self-censorship. It`s hard to blame them. Imagine living in a room with a hydraulic ceiling that goes down several inches a year. And it is getting faster with time. You have witnessed it crushing the tallest ones. You saw it forcing the strongest ones to crawl. You are scared to grow for it will come at you earlier. However even if you keep a low profile your turn will definitely come. It`s not a question of ‘if’ but ‘when’.
The necessity of sustaining a high level of pressure leads to dreadful outcomes. A month ago, a colleague burned herself to death in front of a regional police headquarters. She was one of the last independent journalists in the Nizhny Novgorod region and she was struggling for years with her self-authored and self-published outlet Koza-Press. That also meant constant police and judicial pressure – court hearings, accusations, smear campaigns, etc. She was selling hand-made wooden scarfs weaved at night to pay the state-imposed fines. One day she got her front door knocked down by police, her flat searched, her computer confiscated. The next day she took a canister of gasoline and killed herself. Her last Facebook post says: “Russian Federation is to be held accountable for my death.”
So it goes.
Despite all this, new investigative media continue to appear in Russia. Well, technically these are mostly registered abroad but their journalists are Russian-based. One of these young but ambitious outlets is iStories where I work. We only launched this year but our staffers are experienced investigative reporters that were part of international teams that published many cross-border projects such as the Panama Papers, the Paradise Papers, Russian Laundromat, FinCen Files, and the like. We were privileged to collaborate with many colleagues and that is exactly the ‘cooperation instead of rivalry’ model that we are trying to develop on Russian soil. A lot of our texts are published as a joint effort with other Russian language media. “If we don’t band together then we will gradually disappear”, as our editor in chief Roman Anin says.
We are also a member of the Organized Crime and Corruption Reporting Project (OCCRP), a consortium of investigative centers, media and journalists operating in Eastern Europe, the Caucasus, Central Asia and Central America. Being a part of this network gives us tremendous opportunities in terms of cross-border research.
Yes, we mostly investigate corruption in Russia. The fact that it is raging on all levels of the Russian state hierarchy is widely recognised. And while some foreign colleagues tend to traditionally perceive it as a ‘tumor’ that metastasised across various state organs I would rather think of it as a skeleton, the very carcass that holds those organs together. This metaphor could better explain why almost no revelation of journalists in this sphere, no matter how profound and well documented it is, produce any effect inside Russia. No criminal proceedings to be started, no firing of culprits to be expected.
The most candid quote that reflects the overall approach to problems by many Russian bureaucrats belongs to the former head of State Duma commission on security and corruption prevention (and now the vice-speaker of the Duma) Irina Yarovaya who claimed that a struggle against corruption can potentially endanger the sovereignty of the Russian state.
More often than not, and it was proven by numerous investigations, the very same Russian state servants that talk so much about ‘sovereignty’ and ‘patriotism’ tend to keep their numerous assets abroad – most notably in the UK and its dependent offshore jurisdictions. Their flats are in London, their mansions are in the British countryside, their jets are registered at the Isle of Man, their money flowing through Jersey and BVI companies. And that is why internal UK policies on the transparency of ownership and money flows become important for us here, sitting 2,500 km away from Downing Street. In recent years, the UK did make a few steps in this direction including the obligatory statement of a person with ‘significant control’ for a company or an announced publicly accessible register of ultimate owners of companies that own or buy property in the UK. Still there are many grey zones that no investigative journalist can access – some in the UK, many more in the affiliated territories. The faster the UK would proceed on the declared path to transparency dragging its offshore allies behind it, the better job we could do. This in its turn would certainly benefit British people – the pumping of criminal money to and through the UK is certainly not in its best interests.
As Arthur Schlesinger wrote: “The obligation of history is to provide as full and exact a reconstruction of the past as possible—as the obligation of rational society is to offer its citizenry the most accurate possible information about the purpose and performance of its leaders.” We try our best but we could definitely use some help from the UK in this area.
Alas, there are some worrying trends involving the UK too.
The notorious persecution of Wikileaks`s editor Julian Assange is directed from across the ocean but UK has been playing a pivotal role in it. The very existence of this unprecedented trial as well as its handling by UK authorities has been criticised by many world renowned figures and organisations – from leaders of states to lawyers, from journalists to Nobel prize laureates. This persecution is “raising serious concern over the criminalization of investigative journalism in violation of both the US Constitution and international human rights law”, – believes Professor Nils Melzer, the UN Special Rapporteur on torture, -“In 20 years of work with victims of war, violence and political persecution I have never seen a group of democratic States ganging up to deliberately isolate, demonize and abuse a single individual for such a long time and with so little regard for human dignity and the rule of law.”
Another saddening development to be mentioned is the mounting pressure of the Five Eyes on the tech companies and repeated calls to effectively break the existing encryption algorithms or compliment the currently secure software with backdoors. The trade-off between an existing liberty and a promised safety is a dubious one in itself. For us here it might actually mean losing both. Whatever little means of resisting the extremely invasive state – with its constant wiretapping and digital watch, with its regular physical surveillance and occasional confiscation of hardware – we still have, encryption is one of them. Secure messengers, encrypted emails and hard drives not only protect ourselves but our sources too. There is no way the encryption could be dismantled only for the benefit of the ‘good guys’, there is no way any backdoor would not be exploited by authoritarian governments, be it Russia or Saudi Arabia. Compromised encryption is going to inflict exceptional damage upon investigative reporting worldwide and at the end of the day it will backfire against the very same countries that call for it now.
Dmitry Velikovsky, is an investigative reporter with iStories and OCCRP. Over the past two decades, Velikovsky has worked in several roles as an observer, field reporter, producer, and fixer. He was previously a staffer for the “Russian Reporter” magazine and “Novaya Gazeta” newspaper, but his stories have also been published in many other Russian-language media as well as in The Washington Post and Aftonbladet. As a local producer, he has occasionally worked with major broadcasting corporations such as BBC, Vice, France24, RTS, CCTV, NPR and TV3. Velikovsky has won several awards as a result of his work including the Sigma Award for best data-driven reporting (2020) – as a part of OCCRP team that worked with the Troika Laundromat project; the George Polk Award (2018) – as a part of the International Consortium of Investigative Journalists team that worked with the Paradise Papers project; a Pulitzer prize (2017) – as a part of the International Consortium of Investigative Journalists team that worked with the Panama Papers project; the Best Documentary Peace Award (2014) of Gothenburg Independent Film Festival for “Mediastan”.
Image by Roger H. Goun under (CC).