By Anton Zverev and Gabrielle Tétrault-Farber
MOSCOW (Reuters) – The editor-in-chief of a Russian news outlet designated a “foreign agent” after it investigated the poisoning of opposition politician Alexei Navalny has accused the Russian state of destroying the media.
“The Insider” and Roman Dobrokhotov, its editor-in-chief, angered the Kremlin by helping identify state security officials it said were behind the poisoning of Navalny in August last year. The Kremlin has denied responsibility for Navalny falling ill and cast the incident as a Western-backed special operation to besmirch its reputation.
The online outlet has published stories about the lives of Russia’s secretive elite and collaborated with Bellingcat, a Dutch-based investigative website whose probes into Moscow’s intelligence services have been condemned by Russian state officials as Western propaganda, which it denies.
The authorities searched Dobrokhotov’s home in July https://www.reuters.com/world/europe/head-russian-investigative-news-outlet-says-police-are-searching-his-home-2021-07-28 after declaring his outlet a “foreign agent” and opened a criminal case against him for libel. He called the accusation nonsense.
“We are not talking about censorship here, but about the destruction of civil society’s democratic elements,” the 38-year-old told Reuters in an interview.
“I think this is only the beginning,” he said. “The destruction of the media, of non-governmental organisations, is not an end in itself but a means” to tighten state control.
Media outlets and journalists critical of the authorities have faced increasing pressure in the run-up to a parliamentary election this month.
The ruling United Russia party that supports President Vladimir Putin has never faced a serious challenge during his two decades in power, but election disputes in the past have led to street demonstrations. Kremlin opponents say the authorities are more worried than ever because of declining living standards.
Some media outlets have been fined or forced out of business after being labelled “foreign agents”, a designation that carries negative Soviet-era connotations, affects advertising revenue and compels them to issue a public disclaimer about their status and regularly account for how they spend revenue.
The Kremlin denies media outlets are targeted for political reasons, says action against them is solely based on the law, and says those media which are labelled as foreign agents can continue their work in Russia.
For Dobrokhotov, last year’s near-fatal poisoning of Navalny, President Vladimir Putin’s most prominent critic, was the tipping point.
“An assassination attempt against the main opposition leader is a serious step,” Dobrokhotov said. “I think that’s when everything started to unravel.”
Navalny was airlifted to Germany from Siberia in August last year for medical treatment. After he returned to Russia, he was sentenced to 2 1/2 years on parole violation charges he said were trumped up.
TO STAY OR GO?
Navalny’s movement was designated as extremist earlier this year and his allies, who have either fled or are being prosecuted, are barred from running for office.
More than 20 media outlets and journalists have been declared “foreign agents” by the authorities since April.
Dobrokhotov said he did not expect the crackdown to end after polls close on Sept. 19.
He said he expected the bulk of his staff to relocate abroad. Some employees fear they could face prosecution if they remain in Russia, he said.
“I know that no one really wants to leave,” Dobrokhotov said. “But when the FSB (security service) comes and seizes your computer, phones and opens criminal cases against you, you need to choose whether to leave Russia or become a political prisoner like Navalny.”
Dobrokhotov said The Insider, which does not comply with the demand to use the “foreign agent” disclaimer on its publications, planned to continue its reporting, even on sensitive topics.
He called Navalny a “Russian Nelson Mandela” whose jailing he said might one day benefit the opposition.
“But if dozens of journalists join him (in jail), Russia will not benefit,” Dobrokhotov said.
(Reporting by Anton Zverev and Gabrielle Tétrault-Farber; Editing by Andrew Osborn and Peter Graff)