Intimidated journalists in Russia hesitate to criticize Sochi Games

Government and civilian crackdown on reporters included four deaths, 71 attacks, dozens of police detainments in 2013

Russian journalist Mikhail Beketov (here in 2010) died last April from injuries suffered in a beating believed to be retaliation for his investigative reporting.
Mikhail Metzel/AP

Last April, Russian journalist Mikhail Beketov, who had exposed corruption in the construction of a highway linking Moscow to St. Petersburg, died of injuries sustained in a brutal beating he had received years earlier.

Beketov’s case made international headlines, but it was hardly an isolated episode in Russia, where a growing climate of repression of investigative journalism has left many reporters with a difficult choice between self-censorship and doing their job at serious personal risk.

Journalists exposing corruption or implicating authorities in their critical reporting have been particularly targeted. With notable exceptions, this has led to a timid press, particularly surrounding controversial topics such as the country’s preparations for the Winter Olympics in Sochi, where abuse has been widespread but relatively underreported.

Russian journalists choosing not to compromise their Olympic coverage do so with the memory of Beketov and others as a warning, and under conditions that led Reporters Without Borders to label independent journalism in Sochi “a combat and endurance sport that demands exceptional determination and perseverance.”

Beketov knew a thing or two about both.

The men who attacked him with baseball bats outside his home did not expect him to survive. They smashed his head, broke his legs, pulverized his fingers and left him to die in the cold. A bag of evidence — including a piece of skull that landed two meters away from his body — was temporarily lost, just one detail in an inconclusive investigation that the journalist’s lawyer Andrey Stolbunov called a “comedy.”

Alexei Simonov, president of the Glasnost Defense Foundation, which protects freedom of expression in Russia, said the investigation “will never come to an end.”

“There will never be anyone to blame,” Simonov said. “They know who ordered it, and they don’t want them to be found.”

Simonov’s group recorded 1,582 “media-related conflicts” in 2013, including 71 attacks on journalists, four deaths, 84 cases of reporters detained by police or federal authorities, dozens of instances of censorship, criminal charges against journalists, illegal firings and outlet closures, seized equipment, denied access to information, and threats.

Beketov was one of 16 reporters murdered in Russia in the past decade, according to the Committee to Protect Journalists (CPJ), which monitors press freedom worldwide. In 13 of those cases, no one was brought to justice; in the remaining three, only low-level suspects were.

“Impunity is a signature in these cases,” said Nina Ognianova, Europe and Central Asia coordinator at CPJ, asserting that Beketov’s maiming was, “even for Russia, a particularly gruesome one.”

‘Some are heroes’

When they don’t become targets of violence, Russian journalists crossing the interests of the powerful are subject to intimidation and other forms of pressure, including legal action against them.

Beketov’s car was burned and his dog poisoned months before he was beaten. Vladimir Strelchenko, a local mayor he implicated in his stories and accused of ordering those attacks, took him to trial for defamation while he was wheelchair-bound and unable to speak. One of his lawyers was murdered while leaving an unrelated press conference, and Stolbunov, his other lawyer and editor of an online legal journal, is seeking asylum in the United States.

“Journalists are like lawyers in Russia — you just go to your job and get paid,” Stolbunov said. “But some are heroes — like Beketov. When they reach a wall they say, ‘That’s not a wall, because I feel it’s my job to write about this even if it’s dangerous.’”

Those most familiar with the case pointed fingers at Strelchenko, the mayor, who always denied involvement.

“Beketov had a pretty good idea of who the mastermind of the crime was,” said Eric Matthies, director of “Killing the Messenger,” a film documenting violence against journalists worldwide that featured Beketov. “The point that we make in the film is that if there’s any investigation at all, the mastermind is never gone after.”

Several high-profile figures stood to benefit in the highway project Beketov was reporting on, including Arkady Rotenberg — one of Russia’s most influential businessmen and a longtime friend of President Vladimir Putin, his judo sparring partner. Beketov’s lawyer denied any direct connection between the journalist and Rotenberg, saying, “Rotenberg is very much in the shadows, but Beketov was not a big enough hindrance for him. He was a big hindrance for local authorities. Everyone pointed a finger at the mayor, but there’s no proof.”

Big money, little reporting

Rotenberg’s prominent role in Sochi construction, and the general lack of investigative reporting on it, highlights the magnitude of the political and business interests reporters are often up against.

Companies owned by Rotenberg and his brother Boris won 15 percent of public funds allocated to the Olympics, more than $7 billion worth of construction contracts, according to a report on Olympic spending by opposition leader Boris Nemtsov. The $7 billion figure alone is more than the entire budget of the 2010 Vancouver Winter Olympics, according to Bloomberg.

Few journalists have reported in detail about the business interests behind the $51 billion games. In Sochi, an environment hostile to critical voices has translated into harassment of local and foreign reporters, and a shortage of hard-hitting stories on controversies surrounding the games: the exploitation of migrant workers, ecological damage, uncompensated evictions and corruption. 

“The local media are simply not covering what’s going on in Sochi, and there’s a lot going on,” Ognianova said. “All these issues have been underreported at best, and not covered at all at worst. And the reason is that the atmosphere for critical reporting in Russia has been so chilled that journalists are afraid or outright banned from writing anything negative about the games.”

CPJ is set to release a report detailing the situation this month.

“They write about the games the way they would write about a deceased person, only in a positive light and only covering official meetings and press conferences,” Ognianova said. “The responsibility to a big extent will fall on the international media to report beyond the medals and beyond the ski runs, and to dig into the kind of stories that local journalists have been unable to report.”

Journalists pay price

Local journalists who did report on these stories faced serious consequences.

The offices of one newspaper in Sochi were damaged in an arson attack, and those of another were searched, its computers seized, and its editor beaten. Other papers were dragged into legal battles that cost them time and resources.

More recently, Sochi-based reporter Nikolai Yarst was arrested and sentenced on drug charges as he reported a story on police misconduct at an Olympic construction site. His lawyer told Human Rights Watch that violations in the case suggested a political motivation.

Foreign journalists have also faced obstruction.

Members of a Norwegian TV crew reporting in Sochi were detained, threatened and told by an officer they were “on a blacklist.”

Last week, Russian authorities banned Radio Free Europe journalist David Satter, telling him his presence was “undesirable.” Satter was the first American reporter to be banned in Russia since the Cold War, although several foreign journalists have been expelled during that time.

If investigative reporting on the Olympics has been challenging, public oversight on the preparations has fared no better, critics charge.

“Not a single criminal case of fraud, embezzlement, bribe-taking or kickbacks has reached the courts,” Nemtsov wrote, detailing allegations of corruption in Sochi and denouncing the government’s secrecy and culture of impunity. “That is an indictment of the system.”

Rampant corruption

Corruption behind the Olympics is hardly a secret — or a surprise in a country that Transparency International lists as the most corrupt among the G-20.

“Everyone knows about it, but who’s going to write it?” said Stolbunov, adding that self-censorship is widespread among Russian journalists. “People are scared.”

“Nobody will tell you do this or don’t do that. But every journalist knows that if he writes about an issue that’s not good for some government people, either he won’t get published, won’t get paid or worse,” he added, citing an acquaintance to whom sources joked that “he won’t die a natural death.”

But self-censorship is as much a product of direct intimidation as it is a consequence of the political and economic interdependence between media, local authorities and business interests, some say.

“I cannot claim that we can say everything,” a Sochi editor told Reporters Without Borders. “We understand the environment in which we are operating. We don’t want to create problems for our city.”

Despite the “chilled” coverage, stories have emerged in Sochi depicting the organization of an international event that has come at a high cost for Russia — both financially and in terms of environmental, social and political impact.

Ognianova called on the international media not to let the spotlight on Sochi “go off” after the Olympics. 

“It will get worse for those brave individuals who have been talking on the record; there will be a witch hunt for sure,” she said. “It is the responsibility of the international community not to abandon this community after the Olympics are gone.”

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