Being a Target
In a mid-July interview, Roman Dobrokhotov, founder and editor-in-chief of the investigative outlet The Insider wondered why his website wasn’t declared an “undesirable organisation” or a “foreign agent”. Shortly after the interview, as has happened with other Russian independent media outlets critical of the Kremlin, The Insider was labelled a “foreign agent” and Dobrokhotov’s apartment was raided by the police. The formal reason for the search was a criminal libel case over a tweet with alleged “disinformation about the downed Boeing MH17.”
Since early spring Russia’s authorities have been attacking independent media outlets one-by-one. It started with Meduza, then Proekt. Police arrested and raided the house of investigative journalist Roman Anin. What’s happening?
I would also add the independent outlet Doxa to this list. It was run by students at Moscow’s Higher School of Economics. I think at least three of them are in prison now. They were arrested on the pretence that they were inspiring teenagers to participate in protests.
What has changed that led the government to such a crackdown?
Although real suppression of journalists started this January, I think the turning point was last summer when [Russian President Vladimir] Putin decided to change the Constitution. (One of the amendments allowed Putin to run again for two more six-year presidential terms – I.S.) It was a very unpopular decision. They had to falsify the voting. It wasn’t even a referendum. It was some weird voting without a law behind it. As I understand, Putin was waiting for very strong protests in different regions. Especially because it coincided with protests in Belarus and Khabarovsk where the arrest of the local governor angered people. Putin thought that the situation could explode and he was probably right to worry as the tension was very high.
Was that the reason for attacks on the main opposition leader Alexey Navalny?
Putin decided to murder Alexey Navalny twice last summer- the first attempt was in June, the second in July. For me, it shows that Putin was afraid because Navalny was supposed to lead the protests in different regions. When he failed to kill Navalny, and the latter returned to Russia, the Kremlin started putting tough pressure on civil activists. There were several new laws. One of them allowed to be called any peaceful movement an extremist movement. As a result, Navalny’s fund was labelled as an extremist organisation.
Why did Navalny return to Russia from Germany where he was treated after poisoning? He knew that most likely he would be arrested.
I think he was hoping that he would not be arrested. I haven’t discussed it with his team, but I believed there was a 50/50 chance he would be arrested in Russia. Navalny wanted to lead by example and go in the streets. He didn’t want to be someone like Garry Kasparov, who lives in America, writes critical political columns, but is not a real political figure in Russia. Kasparov can’t influence anything abroad even if he is a clever and brave person. If you are a journalist, you can work from abroad. If you are an activist – it’s impossible. Navalny decided that he would rather be a Russian Nelson Mandela than a Garry Kasparov.
If you are a journalist, you can work from abroad. If you are an activist – it’s impossible. Navalny decided that he would rather be a Russian Nelson Mandela than a Garry Kasparov.
Nelson Mandela had a long imprisonment but Navalny has a high risk of being killed…
Yes, it is risky, but if you are in opposition and activist, you have to take a risk to reap a reward.
You said that Vladimir Putin was expecting a backlash from society after changing the Constitution. But it didn’t happen. Why?
Well, the government was doing a great job of suppressing opposition. They made protesting so costly that common people were afraid to participate. They poisoned Navalny – one of the main organisers of this kind of activity. They are threatening thousands of people. All one has to do to receive anonymous death threats is observe a peaceful election. This is a very poisonous environment. In addition, the coronavirus pandemic banned activities on the streets. I know it’s not a very good excuse as in many countries people still were protesting. In Russia, some activists thought we should wait a couple of months and then protest. Unfortunately they lost the momentum.
The Kremlin has opened dozens of criminal cases against activists with many arrested and imprisoned. If you put all this into context, it’s clear why there is pressure on journalists now. Before last summer, there was a red line the Kremlin didn’t dare to cross. When they decided to go after [Meduza reporter] Ivan Golunov, it was a decision made by some mid-level FSB officers who, allegedly, wanted to punish Golunov for his investigations into the Moscow government. It wasn’t even a federal story. After the huge support Golunov received from Russian media and public figures, it was clear to everybody that you shouldn’t cross this red line and accuse journalists. I would say that in 2020 journalists felt pretty safe.
How do these last suppressions differ from Golunov’s case?
It’s a new kind of suppression because this is not ordered by some unknown mid-level FSB officers. These are people who work for the Kremlin and the activity is sanctioned by Putin. Now they touch important investigative journalists who are well known inside and outside of the country. I think they are just testing how far they can cross this red line. Journalists are now the ones with enough courage to confront Putin and his cronies directly, showing their links with the mafia, corruption, assassinations etc. They, of course, influence public opinion a lot.
Still, in Russia, it’s not like in Turkey, where they decided to go after all famous journalists and activists and arrested thousands of them. In Russia, the logic is a bit different. They are coming after journalists one by one to create an atmosphere of fear; a chilling effect. Dozens of journalists are leaving the country, especially after seeing what happened in Belarus. Usually, Belarus is one step forward in the sense of oppression. They have already started imprisoning dozens of journalists. I don’t believe that in Belarus there will be one independent media outlet left by the end of this year. In the last two weeks, all journalists who could leave Belarus, left. We don’t have such a big flow of journalists leaving the country yet, but still, it’s the biggest fleeing in modern Russian history.
Do you have a guess why Meduza was declared a “foreign agent” as they don’t focus on investigative journalism?
Independent media existing is a crime in Russia. If you are Meduza, of course, you will mention The Insider story with Bellingcat about the poisoning of Alexey Navalny by FSB officers. Or you will quote Proekt’s investigations about Putin’s daughter. You can’t just ignore these stories, because then you will immediately be a propagandist. There is a very thin line between being neutral and being anti-Putin. If you write that Putin tried to kill Navalny, it’s [regarded as] some kind of anti-Putinism. Now we all are in the same boat; activists, journalists, human rights watchers, NGOs, people from the educational system. Everyone who is not totally loyal to the government is called, and imprisoned as, an enemy of the state.
So, it means the death of investigative journalism in Russia?
I think that the new reality for Russia will be a big number of domestic journalists working abroad. There will be tough restrictions on the internet, with websites available only via VPN. The internet will be much more anonymous than before because there are lots of penalties, not only for journalists but also readers if they share independent media articles. A reader can be fined and criminally charged for sharing an article published by a so-called “undesirable organisation”.
This is the new reality. We don’t know how far people like Putin and the ones around him – like the most anti-western such as [Alexey] Gromov (responsible for state propaganda – I.S.), [Nikolai] Patrushev (the Secretary of the Russian Security Council – I.S.) – will go.
I don’t believe that in Belarus there will be one independent media outlet left by the end of this year.
To sum up: the silence after changes in the Constitution last summer and Putin’s worries about the outcome in the upcoming State Duma elections in September are the main reasons why Kremlin is silencing potential critics?
Yes, because until the change of the Constitution, Russia’s political system played the game of legitimacy. They pretended it’s a bit different from Western countries but still a kind of democracy with free media, political parties, and elections. Now they are tearing down these decorations. This is the first time in Russian elections when they not only reject independent candidates, but open criminal investigations against all who run for parliament.
Is Putin paranoid about losing power? These speculations have been around for many years.
I still remember the year of 2005 when the Kremlin was going after activists who were talking about the possibility of an Orange revolution in Russia. People were saying that there is no sign of a real color revolution in Russia, but saw what happened in Ukraine. Civil society in Ukraine was very active even during [President Viktor] Janukovich’s times, and in 2014, when Euromaidan just started, no one could expect that Janukovich would leave the country and there would be a revolution. But it happened and it happened because of a very strong civil society. So what is Putin doing now? He is destroying all networks in civil society that can be the future skeleton of the protest mechanism. He is both paranoid and pretty rational at the same time.
Your investigations with Bellingcat about Russia’s military operations were explosive. How safe do you feel yourself?
Many people, including myself, are surprised that we have not yet been declared “foreign agents” or “undesirables”. The Kremlin has its own logic and it’s hard to predict why they chose these journalists to be the first ones to be punished. But everyone agrees that at some point we will be the target. (The Insider was declared a “foreign agent” on July 23. Five days later Dobrokhotov’s apartment was searched by police based on defamation charges filed by the Dutch blogger Max van der Werff – I.S.)
We are preparing for this by making the structure of our organisation safe from any legal or economical suppression. For example, we are organising all the payments to journalists in a way that it’s not possible to stop them or in a way that is hard to understand who is working for The Insider. The most difficult part is how to save our web domain in case they blacklist us. In general, I think we are stronger than them because we are quicker, more motivated, and, in our team, we have the best people skillful in technologies, legal issues, etc. On their side is Vladimir Putin and bureaucrats who are not really motivated.
How big is your team now, if you can reveal such information?
It’s around 15 people, including people in and outside Russia who are working full time.
Where do you get money?
We have different sources, for example, through advertising. Most important for us is crowdfunding when people subscribe monthly. When we started The Insider, we had hopes that people would pay for single articles. Nobody did, although thousands were reading. But monthly donations are working differently. You just subscribe and regularly pay small sums from your card or PayPal account. You can be in and out of Russia, it’s very safe. Even if it’s 5 dollars from a person, it’s enough to feed dozens of independent media. Simple math: if we have three million viewers per month and if only 1/100 donates a dollar monthly, it’s enough to support independent journalism.
In America, after Donald Trump was elected as president, liberal media experienced a sharp rise in subscribers. Do you have the same after all these suppressions?
Yes, support from the public has been huge.
The amount of the younger generation who grew up without television is growing. The fatigue from Putin is increasing, and businesses do not like sanctions.
I spoke with the editor in chief of Meduza recently and he said that in the last months he is feeling anxious every time he picks up the phone; that some bad news will be delivered again. Do you share his concerns?
Yes, it is the same. I have anxiety every time the doorbell is ringing. But that’s a new reality.
You are an experienced activist but what about your family? Aren’t you afraid about their safety?
I don’t think that my family is in danger. But family is an important factor when we are thinking about moving our work out of Russia. It’s easier to move abroad for The Insider team members who have no families.
In 2008, you interrupted a speech by then Russian President Dmitry Medvedev, when he proposed constitutional amendments extending the presidential term. Would you do the same with Putin now if they would let you in?
I wasn’t allowed to participate in Putin’s press conference despite the fact that I was accredited. Besides, I didn’t have an intention to interrupt him. I just wanted to ask a couple of questions that would be very difficult for him to dodge.
I wanted to ask about the GRU officers who tried to poison Sergei Skripal in London and why money from the offshores of [Sergey] Roldugin (a cello player and close friend of Putin – I.S.) was spent on palaces and assets connected to Putin.
I know it’s hard to make any prognosis but what do you expect to happen in the following months – before and after the State Duma elections?
I would bet that the Kremlin will continue tightening the suppression for the next few years but then at one moment the situation will explode.
Several reasons. The amount of the younger generation who grew up without television is growing. The fatigue from Putin is increasing, and businesses do not like sanctions.
According to Russian law, an organisation can be determined a “foreign agent” if it engages in politics and receives funding from abroad. Practically, it means that the media organisation has to add the label “foreign agent” to every page on its website and has to submit detailed reports of its incomes and expenditures to the authorities. If it refuses to do so, the authorities can impose fines, press felony charges against the editor-in-chief, and even block content in Russia. Most advertisers withdraw their ads out of fear of being accused of cooperating with an “enemy of state”. It scares away potential sources of information too. Journalists or even people who just share the materials of the media outlet, can potentially be labelled as individual “foreign agents” too. If this happens, these individuals are forced to report all their income and expenses to the Russian Ministry of Justice.
In short – it’s death for a media outlet. It is illegal to distribute materials created by “undesirable organisations”, or even to share the links to their articles on social media. Participating in the activities of an “undesirable organisation” is a misdemeanour offense. Donating money or offering any form of financial assistance can lead to felony charges. Russian citizens are prohibited from collaborating with “undesirable organisations” both inside Russia and abroad.
Source: RSF, Meduza, BBC