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As you follow the James Bond-like tales of Babchenko and Browder this week, remember the other Russian journalists who weren't so lucky

This type of organised response Babchenko experienced in Russia is increasingly the result when journalists step out of line and challenge the prevailing view

Jenny Mathers
Thursday 31 May 2018 14:50 BST
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Colleagues of Arkady Babchenko cheer and cry as they find out he is alive

On Wednesday, we learned that Russian journalist Arkady Babchenko had not been brutally killed outside his home in Kiev on 29 May but had staged his own death in cooperation with the Ukrainian security services to catch those responsible for ordering his murder and the murders of perhaps as many as 30 others. Responses to this revelation, including among Babchenko’s friends and colleagues, are divided. Some see this as a major victory for the Ukrainian authorities, especially if, as was claimed in Wednesday’s news conference, they are able to provide hard evidence linking the murder plot to Russia. Others are concerned that the deception further damages the news media’s reputation for integrity and makes it easier for Moscow to cast doubt on the veracity of its critics.

But while the James Bond-like features of this story are fascinating, they should not be allowed to overshadow the very real dangers to journalists in Putin’s Russia. The newspaper Babchenko worked for, Novaya Gazeta, decided to take a range of security measures, including arming its journalists with “trauma weapons” in response to the threats and attacks they face. And it is not only journalists who are at risk. Another story in the news on Wednesday – the arrest and release in Spain of British-American financier Bill Browder – provided a reminder of the actual death of someone else who was willing to challenge Moscow: Sergei Magnitsky.

Sergei Magnitsky was an attorney based in Moscow working for Browder’s company, Hermitage Capital Management, when, in 2008, he uncovered what he believed to be fraud on a massive scale (£150m) by tax officials and the police. Magnitsky reported his allegations to the authorities and promptly found himself in prison facing charges of aiding tax evasion. Charging whistleblowers with the very crime that they are seeking to expose has become a common practice in Russia and has been used against leading opposition figure and anti-corruption campaigner Alexei Navalny.

Where large sums of money are concerned the stakes are always high, but in Russia political power, big business and criminality have combined to create a powerful kleptocracy that is ruthless in defending its interests. Magnitsky’s true crime was bringing his discovery to the attention of the relevant authorities, believing that they would take the steps that Russian law requires of them.

Magnitsky died in 2009 under mysterious circumstances while still in prison and no formal investigation into his death was ever concluded. But death did not put him beyond the reach of the Russian justice system. In a bizarre move, he was posthumously tried and convicted.

Arkady Babchenko shares Magnitsky’s willingness to act on his convictions and hold officials in high places to account. Babchenko’s journalism is hard-hitting, but it was the response to a post he placed on Facebook that made him decide to leave Russia for what he hoped would be a safer life for himself and his family in Ukraine. Babchenko’s Facebook post was critical of the outpouring of patriotic sentiment in Russia in response to the crash of a Russian aircraft carrying a famous military choir to perform for the troops in Syria, in contrast to the official silence about the Syrian civilians, including children, who have died as a result of Russian military operations in that country.

Babchenko’s comments met with a coordinated campaign of intimidation, which combined public denunciations by officials, suggestions that legal action would be taken against him as well as “spontaneous” expressions of outrage by ordinary citizens. This type of organised response is increasingly the result when journalists step out of line and challenge the prevailing view, as Elena Milashina discovered when she exposed the abduction and torture in Chechnya of men suspected of being gay or bisexual. The sympathy her story expressed for these men and the outrage it conveyed at the abuse of their human rights placed her on the wrong side of a regime whose ideology insists on excessive respect for authority and for traditional, socially conservative values. Like Babchenko, Milashina now lives abroad as a result of the threats made against her.

In theory, Russia has a completely free news media and strict laws against corruption. As the examples of Babchenko, Magnitsky and others demonstrate, what happens in real life can be quite different. And for every spectacular story like the ones highlighted here, there are many, many instances of Russians who struggle to reconcile the ethical demands of their consciences with the human desire for quiet and safe lives for themselves and their families.

Jenny Mathers researches and teaches Russian politics and security policy in the Department of International Politics at Aberystwyth University

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