On 12 June, Russia’s National Day, anti-corruption protests took place across many of its cities. Crowds of people chanted, ‘Putin out!’ and ‘Russia without thieves!’ Hundreds of demonstrators were arrested and others were beaten by police. Amnesty International claims that the authorities tried to intimidate protesters into avoiding these demonstrations and then punished those who turned up. The lawyer and anti-corruption campaigner Alexei Navalny urged protesters to meet at an area in the centre of Moscow designated for public holiday celebrations. He was arrested as he left home and charged with violating the rules of public assemblies, an offence punishable by up to thirty days of detention. Amnesty believes he was detained in order to stop him joining the protesters. Navalny has announced his intention to stand against President Putin in elections next March, though it is likely that he will be prevented from doing so.
While concern about corruption in Russia is growing, Putin’s clampdown on free expression grows tighter. As ever, journalists, writers and bloggers are on the front line if they dare to report on these issues. Several journalists have been killed this year.
The most recent victim is Dmitry Popkov, the 42-year-old chief editor of Ton-M, an independent local newspaper in Siberia. Popkov’s body was found on the night of 24 May in his back yard in the city of Minusinsk in the Siberian region of Krasnoyarsk Krai. He had died of multiple gunshot wounds. Popkov cofounded Ton-M in 2014 and was well known for his investigative reports on corruption and the abuse of power. He was also critical of officials from the Kremlin-backed United Russia party. The newspaper, published under the motto ‘We write what other people stay silent about’, had been subject to threats and pressure from the authorities, as well as politically motivated police raids. In an editorial published in August 2016, Popkov wrote that Ton-M was ‘accustomed to being a pain in the neck for many officials who are trying to [silence us] in every possible way’, adding that the authorities were concerned about the ‘corruption incidents that we reveal’. Sadly he suffered the ultimate form of censorship for his bravery. Many believe Popkov was killed for his journalism and have pointed to his recent reports revealing corruption in the local administration. The regional branch of Russia’s Investigative Committee – the government agency responsible for investigating major crimes – claims that it is looking into the killing and that the journalist’s work is being treated as a potential motive for the murder, but few hold out any hope that his killers will be brought to justice.
On 19 April, Nikolai Andrushchenko, a 73-year-old journalist, died in a St Petersburg hospital of injuries sustained in a beating six weeks earlier. He had been in a medically induced coma. Andrushchenko cofounded Novy Peterburg with his colleague Alevtina Ageyeva in 1990. He was widely known for his criticism of Putin and investigative reports alleging corruption, human rights abuses and police brutality. Ageyeva told the Committee to Protect Journalists (CPJ) that Andrushchenko was a ‘constant irritant for the authorities’ and stated that she had ‘no doubt that he was killed for his journalism’. At the time of writing, no one has been detained for his murder.
Andrushchenko had suffered physical attacks in the past. In November 2016, several assailants beat him on his doorstep. His neighbours intervened before he could be killed. He was also attacked in November 2007. A few weeks later, police raided the newspaper’s office. He spent two months in pretrial detention facing charges of defamation and obstruction of justice following his article on a murder investigation.
The deaths of these journalists mark the return of a worrying trend: ‘Russia is a country where too many journalists have been murdered for their work while their killers walk free. This toxic cycle of impunity must be reversed once and for all.’
PEN is also concerned about the culture of impunity in Russia. In the last two decades six journalists from the leading independent newspaper Novaya Gazeta have been killed in direct retaliation for their work, including the investigative journalist Anna Politkovskaya (LR, November 2006), whose murder remains unsolved to this day. Earlier this year, staff at Novaya Gazeta were threatened after they exposed the brutal abuse of men believed to be gay in Chechnya. PEN has urged the Russian authorities to condemn attacks against journalists publicly and to do everything in their power to protect them from harm.
Readers might like to send appeals condemning the brutal assassination of Dmitry Popkov; calling on the Russian authorities to conduct an immediate and thorough investigation into the murder and to bring those found responsible to justice; expressing concern that Popkov was killed in retaliation for his work; and urging the authorities to provide journalists with all necessary protection in order to safeguard their right to freedom of expression.
Appeals to be sent to:
His Excellency Alexander Vladimirovich Yakovenko
Embassy of the Russian Federation
6/7 Kensington Palace Gardens, London W8 4QP
Fax: 020 7227 8625, Email: email@example.com
Yury Yakovlevich Chaika
Prosecutor General’s Office
ulitsa Bolshaya Dmitrovka d.15a
125993 Moscow GSP-3, Russian Federation
Tatiana Nikolaevna Moskalkova
High Commissioner for Human Rights in the Russian Federation
ulitsa Miasnitskaia 47
107084 Moscow, Russian Federation