Russian Media and the Rule of Silence: English Transcript
This event was hosted in partnership with the Friedrich Naumann Foundation for Freedom. The below is a translation of the Russian language transcript from the event.
SERGEY PARKHOMENKO: Hello, dear friends! It is almost evening in Moscow and relatively early in the morning in Washington. People are watching us on both shores of the ocean. Today we are guests of the Kennan Institute and its Facebook account. It is quite a new idea that we have decided to try for the sake of today’s topic.
My name is Sergey Parkhomenko. I am a journalist, a radio host, and an affiliate of the Kennan Institute. I have been working with it for several years and help it select various interesting speakers for the Institute. The Institute, if some of you don’t know, is one of the oldest and most prominent American institutions. It has been studying Russia and Ukraine for several decades and brings together experts who know their subject very well. The Institute is trying to expand and make the American perception of what is really going on in Russia and Ukraine more relevant in order to get rid of stereotypes and simplifications, which are quite common in such cases. By the way, on the Kennan Institute’s website—just google the Kennan Institute and you will quickly find it—there are two blogs I highly recommend to you. Great experts and thinkers write for these blogs. Maxim Trudolyubov, a Russian journalist and a brilliant editor whom you well know, helps the Institute edit it all. One blog is called the Russia File and the other is called Focus Ukraine [Focus Ukraine is edited by Mykhailo Minakov—ed.]. The former deals with Russia and the latter with Ukraine. There are also podcasts. One is called KennanX and the other is also called the Russia File.
Now I will introduce the participants in today’s conversation, but before that, to finish the housekeeping tasks, I will mention that you can send us your questions via email to firstname.lastname@example.org. And, of course, the most convenient way is just to drop your questions into the comments here on the Facebook page. The Kennan Institute’s team will assist us during the conversation. They will be keeping an eye on the comments and forwarding questions to me.
Now let me introduce those whom I have invited for this talk. Pavel Chikov is a Russian lawyer, a human rights advocate, a public figure and head of the famous Agora group, which was first established locally in Kazan and now is undoubtedly an all-Russia organization. It is one of the largest human rights associations that provide professional legal support when it is needed in various complex cases.
We also have Ivan Pavlov with us. He represents Team 29, which I think many of you know well. Why 29? 29 is a chapter in the Russian Penal Code that contains the most severe, most dangerous, and often inhumane articles of the Penal Code related to crimes against the state. So this is the area of expertise of Ivan Pavlov and his colleagues. I think we will touch on this today.
And finally, Roman Anin, a wonderful investigative journalist. For many years he was a Russian partner of OCCRP [Organized Crime and Corruption Reporting Project], one of the largest international journalists’ organizations that run various big international investigations and facilitate journalists’ collaborations. Before that, if I remember correctly, for many years Roman worked with the Novaya Gazeta newspaper, and together with his colleagues he has recently established his own news outlet, called Vazhnye Istorii [Important Stories, an independent media outlet—ed.]. It also focuses on different investigations and rather in-depth reporting. As one of the members of the Redkollegia Award team, I know this media outlet quite well because it managed to collect quite a few Redkollegia Awards during the first months of its work. And I am very happy about that. All of them were well earned. Roman is a recipient of many other awards as well, including the famous Knight International Journalism Award for achievements in international journalism, the Artyom Borovik Award, the Yulian Semenov Award, and the Andrei Sakharov Award. So this company is doing pretty well with awards.
Okay, that’s it with introductions. Please start asking your questions, and I will ask my guests to say a few words on the topics we have chosen as today’s main storyline. I have titled the conversation “The Rule of Silence,” but perhaps that is not quite right. I have a feeling that [the authorities] are consistently and meticulously designing some sort of regime of silence. Mainly it is done through legal methods, by creating different types of legal rules and restrictions intended particularly for journalists’ work.… The restrictions are purposely designed to curb journalists so that [they cannot fully exercise] their constitutional rights and the freedom of speech guarantees that still exist for journalists in Russia. Even after the amendments introduced this spring and summer, the key provisions still more or less remain in place. Nevertheless, in Russian legislation and by-laws and in Russian court practice, you will find a large number of different things that are somehow purposely designed to target journalists.
This is what I would like to talk about. And I would like to start with Pavel Chikov, who has been observing this process for quite a while. Maybe I have a neurosis? Maybe I imagined it? Maybe it is just a feeling that the situation is getting more opaque. What do you think? Is it really the case that the pressure is growing, as time goes by, and more and more restrictions are being imposed? I must admit, this is what it feels like to me. Would you agree with me or not? Please describe your perspective on the situation and how it is developing.
PAVEL CHIKOV: Thank you, Sergey. Good afternoon, evening, and morning, everyone! Thank you for the question. My answer won’t be simple. First, because many things have changed over the past years. The role of the mass media is changing. The way the public environment functions is changing. The whole public space is changing. Various professional and amateur bloggers, informal initiatives, groups, and projects, are vigorously competing with conventional mass media. It is quite hard to draw a distinction between Yury Dud and Alexei Navalny in terms of video content on YouTube, for instance. Hard to draw a distinction between the Telegram channel of a professional journalist and the Telegram channel of a human rights advocate, like Pavel Chikov or whoever.
In this sense, we [Agora] do not specifically focus on defending journalists and mass media. We defend people who are prosecuted for what they say, and from this perspective I would not say that today they are putting special emphasis on repressing journalists and the mass media. In other words, persecution is not very selective in terms of who is the author of a publication. Keep in mind that today, everyone who has access to the internet already becomes a blogger and an information distributor. In this sense, a professional journalist who has a degree, who has an editor, an editorial office and many other controllers, is more protected because he pays more attention to what he writes. He is more aware of the possible consequences because he has additional filters between him and his publication that he has to go through before the actual printing. Meanwhile, our law enforcement officers like taking things easy. They do not try hard. On the contrary: the simpler, the better, the more fun. In this sense, the man who called President Putin a bad name in his VKontakte account has a higher chance of being prosecuted than an investigative journalist who has been building his case for a year, who has proved and confirmed his findings with all possible evidence, etc.
That is my first point. My second one is that the authorities are the main source of threats, risks, and problems [for the media], and their approach has become much more selective; it is a “smart approach,” if you wish. In other words, to neutralize the Vedomosti newspaper they did not need to run searches, open criminal cases, conduct raids, or do something along those lines. They had to play a game with several moves to replace newspaper owners, and as a result, they neutralized one of the leading newspapers. And we learn about many such cases that involved different leading news outlets and their reputation over the past years.
I can also look at it from the newsmaker’s perspective. What is true is that it has become more difficult to work with journalists and media when you have some significant information to share. We constantly get rejections. “We can’t write about it,” they say. “We are sorry, it is not our format.” “That’s not it.…” So when you speak about some sort of “rule of silence,” that strikes a chord with me. It is more difficult now. Let us recall Alexei Navalny, whom many people do not like, and his sometimes criticized populist rhetoric. In principle, his crusade against conventional media has certain grounds. Why? Because today, it really has become much more difficult to work with conventional media and use them as intermediaries for preparing and distributing information. This is a newsmaker’s cri de Coeur. In this sense, key players, those who generate news, meaningful information—or information that maybe only we consider meaningful—they more and more often decide to address it directly to the audience. That’s why there are YouTube channels, Telegram channels, and large public communities. So there’s that too.
But if we take a look at legislative changes and what has been going on recently—that is, what new problems have emerged—there are quite a lot of them. The complex, comprehensive approach of the authorities consists, among other things, in creating such a great number of traps that it is simply impossible to predict where you may get caught. We have a whole block of new articles in the Code of Administrative Violations. They have been adopted over the past year and a half and are actively being put into practice. And the Anti-Extremism Center, which is still operating and used to look for extremism, now looks for those who offend the president. They open cases on disrespecting authorities. Somebody uses an offensive word against someone, and today it is not a crime anymore, it is an administrative offense under the extremism article.
Starting this year, we got a big wave of new cases having to do with fake news. We have administrative fakes and criminal fakes. We did a count, and of the first two hundred cases on fake information distribution—which was, of course, a provision adopted for coronavirus but is now being expanded and applied not just to coronavirus cases—half are cases filed against public figures and journalists. So, roughly speaking, professional information distributors—journalists or bloggers—risk the most. Here we certainly need to mention Irina Slavina, a journalist from Nizhny Novgorod. She was one of those who were fined based on fake news accusations because she reported that there were the first coronavirus cases in the town of Kovrov in the Nizhny Novgorod oblast. Sooner or later, an outbreak would have happened there. Whether it was true or not back then, she got a big fine.
There is another novelty that is actively spreading today. There were only two sentences last year, but this year there are several, and we know of ten cases or so. These are the cases on the rehabilitation of Nazism. [These cases fall under] the new article 354.1 of the Penal Code. It is designed to prosecute those who doubt the gains of the Soviet Union in World War II and who equate Stalin and Hitler, and all that falls under the category of so-called “historical revisionism.” This revisionism is a very touchy subject today. Maybe it is temporary and has to do only with the 70th [75th—ed.] Victory Day Anniversary that was celebrated this year. Or maybe it is a long shot because this week, we have read news that the notorious deputy Irina Yarovaya has introduced a draft law on fines of up to three million rubles for attempts to revise and reevaluate history. Perhaps this is what awaits us.
Another important news item that has been in the air lately is the criminal case of Svetlana Prokopieva. I am just listing the stories of some notable journalists, but beneath each of them there is a significant layer. I mean, just as Slavina’s story has a whole layer of fake news cases, Prokopieva’s story, the story of the Pskov journalist, has a large layer of terrorism justification cases. They sued her just for voicing her opinion about why that anarchist Zhlobitsky blew himself up in the FSB office waiting room in Arkhangelsk. And there are dozens of similar cases, and she is probably the only journalist among them, whereas the rest are some bloggers, but she draws the most attention because she personifies a layer of risks that has just emerged.
And finally—not to take too much time—I would like to say that there is a whole separate block of such legal trap articles that generate cases against “undesirable organizations” and “foreign agents.” This allows the imposition of administrative liability and large fines on anybody, including journalists, journalists based in the regions. For example, we work with defendants from Samara. The news outlet is called Park Gagarina [Gagarin’s Park]. Its founder is a nonprofit organization, as in the case of the Novaya Gazeta newspaper. Because this nonprofit organization received some really insignificant money from abroad, it was labeled a “foreign agent.” Now this regional news outlet from Samara will be destroyed at the local level by a series of fines in the amount of millions of rubles. That is not widely known. And there are lots of stories like that. And this concerns not only MBK Media [Mikhail Khodorkovsky Media] and Otkrytye Media [Open Media], which have links with Khodorkovsky’s Open Russia, which has been labeled “an undesirable organization,” and this prompts searches of their editorial offices. These are small regional and municipal media that are now under a road-leveler. They might be able to resist for six months or a year, but in the medium term, they have no chance of surviving.
SERGEY PARKHOMENKO: Thank you very much, Pavel. Yes, you are absolutely right, of course. When I say “journalists,” I imply, and I hope we will all imply, a broader meaning during this conversation. Clearly, we are not talking about people who have a special degree or something like that. These are the people who work with words in different formats—print, audio, video—and on very different organizational and financial foundations. No one is making a distinction here, you are right. And anybody who opens their mouth in the modern world to a certain degree becomes a journalist, a reporter, a source of information and whatnot, which means they all appear to be in the same circumstances.
Now, Ivan, I would turn to you and talk about the most deplorable, dangerous, and complicated circumstances that have to do with your specialization, which is [defending people charged with] so-called “crimes against the state.” Do you feel that they are becoming more pertinent to our life, more routine? I will tell you right away that I do, but you are a specialist, a professional, and you see it from the inside. And what is particularly interesting is the court practice in regard to this matter. On the internet they love reminding each other that in Russia we don’t have case law, but we all know very well that courts refer to practice, and any case and decision can provide the ground for [deciding] the next one. What would you say about it? What has been amassing in court practice and in investigative practice lately? And to what extent does this relate to those who speak, who make words their profession? Please.
IVAN PAVLOV: Thank you, Sergey. I also thank the Kennan Institute for the remarkable event you have organized. The pandemic caused some adjustments, and we can’t meet in person; but on the upside, we can hold such events more often. Besides, it looks as though for the near future we won’t have any other option.
Sergey, when you introduced me you said Team 29 [is so named] because it is a chapter in the Penal Code that implies crimes undermining state security. But in fact, when we were setting up our project we meant more than that. First and foremost, we meant article 29 of the Constitution, which stipulates freedom of information. So, on the one hand it has to do with freedom of information, and on the other hand it has to do with state security. Right at the meeting point of the two we have found our niche and have been trying to put our knowledge and experience into practice. Right now, all that experience is being used in the area you have just pointed out. That is state security. We simply have to protect people who get caught in these grindstones and pull them out of jail, where they end up after court proceedings and receiving horrible sentences. These are articles 275 and 276—high treason and espionage. These are serious accusations, with sentences from twelve to twenty years in prison.
We started, however, with completely peaceful work when we were standing for freedom of information in civil society. We are still working with historians and researchers who have been trying to get access to archival documents. We are working with journalists who are prevented from participating in different meetings and sessions of government bodies and district election commissions, where officials deal with important issues that journalists have every right to report on. Our government has never been famous for respecting the right to information; even recently it has been so. Before 2010 we did not even have a law that spelled out citizens’ access to government information. In 2010 this law was adopted. Now it is 2020, and the law has not been fully enforced.
And probably I do not need to explain to you how journalists exercise their right to access information. All journalists are aware of it, and I am sure Roman will tell us more about it. [Authorities] do not respond to inquiries. They can simply ignore some questions. That is, in this environment, there are many issues of a nonlegal nature because sometimes everything is alright with legal coverage, and many things are generally taken into account. But for some reason it does not work. I think it does not work partly because of certain cultural traits, because I would say that historically, the government has not learned to respect this right, to accept it as a value; that’s why it treats it like this. [That is] especially [true] now, when technologies are explosively evolving and the information transmission rate today can’t be compared with what it used to be, whereas the government is still trying to use the old Soviet ways, employing bans and repressions to coordinate these information flows, always resulting in repressions.
You asked me whether I see the application of repressive regulations expanding, [meaning] those horrible repressive provisions of the Penal Code articles 275 and 276 on high treason. Yes, we are just seeing it growing, just judging by the official statistics. These official statistics are compiled by the Supreme Court, by its judicial department. I can just give you the numbers from before 2014… And we all know what happened in 2014. I think it was a turning point—Crimea, the southeast of Ukraine, Syria—when the country was shifting to a new track, so to say, a track of war. So it seems to me that before 2014 it was peacetime and now we live in wartime. So during the peacetime there were about three high treason sentences per year, whereas in 2015 there were already fifteen sentences of this kind. It is a fivefold increase. And I will tell you why.
The high treason article resembles the Soviet past. It identifies an enemy of the people. External enemies have been clearly determined, so to speak. Just turn on the central TV channels and it is clear right away who the enemy is. If you turn them on at prime time in the evening it becomes clear that all of America, Ukraine, and in fact everything that is beyond Russia’s borders is the enemy camp and we are surrounded by it. And if there are external enemies, then there must be.…
SERGEY PARKHOMENKO: Oh, Ivan got cut off.… Ivan, can you hear us? You were interrupted when you were saying that everything that has to do with high treason is essentially the embodiment of the enemy of the people idea.
IVAN PAVLOV: Before they tried not to prosecute journalists using this article, even though journalists are in the risk group, which includes everybody who works with information and contacts foreigners. These two factors immediately put a person in the risk group with a chance of criminal liability based on the high treason article. Perhaps before they were afraid of messing with journalists because the journalist community is quite strong, and even now all these events starting back in 2012 and 2014 have not weakened it. It is still strong. Look at how it managed the crisis with Ivan Golunov’s case. They won their colleague back and stuck up for him. But those were cops—pardon the expression, those were policemen on the opponent’s side. In Ivan Safronov’s case, which we are working on now, there is a high treason charge, and it is exactly a case of how the state security service has finally gotten to the most powerful professional body in Russia, the journalist community. And here we see that not everyone is ready to take a stand because the FSB [Federal Security Service] has gained such power that not everybody is ready to fight it, and there are different reasons for that. I probably don’t have enough time to elaborate on that topic, but I will tell you that the situation is certainly worsening, yet the articles on high treason and espionage that we are dealing with are not applied en masse yet. They are still selective about applying them; however, the range of professions that can be hit is increasingly expanding.
SERGEY PARKHOMENKO: Thank you very much, Ivan. I think I will get back to you with a question and a request to spell out why the special service agencies, why the FSB, are gaining this additional decisive power. I think it is an interesting and important subject.
Here’s what I would like to ask Roman. I heard something surprising in Ivan Pavlov’s remarks. And I feel particularly sad that those words were surprising to me. He said, “The most powerful professional body in Russia, namely, journalists.” Somehow I do not feel that the journalist community is the most powerful in Russia. Do you? Do you consider yourself part of a powerful community? Or you are on your own? When I say “you,” I mean you and your colleagues who have created Vazhnye Istorii. Do you feel as though you are a lonely Robin Hood? Or do you feel you are a part of a big journalist system, a community that takes a stand against the criminal world, corruption, and so forth—in other words, everything that you have been dealing with in your journalistic investigations? Thank you.
ROMAN ANIN: I certainly do not feel that I am a lonely Robin Hood because I am working with great colleagues. There are fifteen of us, and they are all very courageous, professional, and mature people. And therefore there is certainly a sense of brotherhood. Nevertheless, sadly, I would disagree with Ivan that we have a powerful community. First of all, the journalist community is as divided as our society. There are those who support authorities and those who.… Or better to put it like this: those who work for authorities and those who don’t. So this community of those who don’t work for authorities is definitely quite influential within itself if we consider the number of Facebook likes [a mark of] influence. But it certainly has no influence if we consider its ability to change the situation in the country, influence the president’s decisions, the decisions of the presidential administration and of the government. In this regard I know that if special services or authorities want to do something to me or my colleagues, there will be a lot of noise, but all of it will have no effect. So if we speak about the community, it is rather loud but not very effective.
SERGEY PARKHOMENKO: Roman, do you have a feeling that any attack on a particular media outlet or a journalist, or a group of media that are working on a certain subject, is a political decision? That there are some people who say, “It’s time. Yesterday it was not yet time, but now we can go ahead.” Or is there always a specific pretext, or, let’s say, a lack of caution, or a lack of accuracy—people leaving themselves open to attack, or something like that? To put it bluntly, do you think it is at all possible to manage these risks? Does it make sense to be cautious at all or to purposely take something into account? Or [is the thinking that] if they want to hit, they will anyway? How do you perceive that? What is your take on that?
ROMAN ANIN: It is hard to say because it is impossible to take all risks into account. Or even [one might say] there is no desire to do that at all. Because if you are a journalist, if you have chosen this profession, then your profession, to put it simply, is to speak the truth. Mikhail Bulgakov wrote, “It is easy and pleasant to speak the truth.” Sadly, in Russia, it has become not easy to speak the truth and doing so is not always pleasant. That’s why in Vazhnye Istorii we decided that we are not going to play it safe. However, we understand that though we are on the front line, we don’t want to die foolishly; therefore we accept some insignificant rules of the game imposed by the authorities. By the rules I mean [for instance] not using obscene words. Fine—we do not use obscenities so as to avoid being blocked for some stupid thing. But if it has to do with an investigation of Putin’s family, then no, we are not going to play it safe because we know that it is an important story for the public.
SERGEY PARKHOMENKO: Okay, Roman, thank you very much. I would like to return to Pavel with this topic—the capital city and a noncapital one. You have already touched on it talking about small media outlets. They can resist for some time, but their resources are quite limited. We are used to thinking that Moscow news outlets would not be touched because there are different rules in Moscow. What is your take on this today? Do people really work under significantly different conditions? After all, it is one single information environment, and if something is published on Ekaterinburg’s Znak.com website or on Kaliningrad’s RUGRAD [business portal], it is essentially the same as to be on the national airwaves—everybody will see and read it anyway. Are the risks nationwide too? Are they evenly distributed? Or is there a distinction between the capital and noncapital city press, broadly speaking?
PAVEL CHIKOV: I would not actually divide Russia into two parts—Moscow and all the rest of the country—because the country is very diverse, and in some regions the risks are significantly higher than in others. Generally speaking, in Moscow I would say that the risks for bloggers and journalists of being criminally prosecuted are a bit lower. What I am saying is that people like Golunov and Safronov are mostly exceptions rather than the rule, in general. I could not quite imagine a criminal case on justification of terrorism [“public justification or propaganda of terrorism” charge—ed.] against a journalist of Ekho Moskvy in Moscow. But it turned out to be more realistic for a journalist of Ekho Moskvy in Pskov.
There are regions with their own distinctions and risks. The Kaliningrad media outlets, Novye Kolyosa [New Wheels] and many others, are actively oppressed. It is not just pertinent to the North Caucasus region, for instance, where risks are usually higher, and these are the risks of both physical violence and criminal prosecution. There is Abdulmunin Gadzhiev, who has been accused of financing terrorism. He is from the Chernovik [Draft] newspaper. Just recently his case was passed on to the North Caucasus Military Court in Rostov-on-Don. By the way, today they held the initial hearings on his case.
There are many other stories about local journalists being attacked and the violence level is higher because their opponents are closer. For instance, for Roman Anin it is the president and his family, whereas for a journalist from Minusinsk of Krasnoyarsk krai, this will be a local businessman, a half criminal who sells illegal timber to China and who has ties with all siloviki [security apparatus], and so on. Therefore this businessman feels that he is not punishable if he commits violent acts. That’s why we see all these assaults on journalists, murders, etc.
Since we are talking about Nizhny Novgorod and have mentioned Irina Slavina, [it would be appropriate to mention that] in that city, they traditionally have some thuggish Center E [Anti-Extremism Center] officers who have been working there since the time of Colonel Trifonov, who was promoted to Moscow and who then retired after a public conflict with Vladimir Vorontsov, [founder of the internet project] Police Ombudsman, who has been in a detention center for six months now. Nizhny Novgorod has a history of psychologically terrorizing local activists. And Irina Slavina belonged to the community of activists more than to the community of journalists, and along with others she was subjected to systematic pressure for many years, and this emotional harassment caused her widely known self-immolation act.
I could make an endless list of different Russian regions and their different features, but when we go deeper, to the level of a specific region, we can see a completely unique picture because they have a unique proportion of different local elites and local siloviki. These ones unite against those, the others join their efforts with someone else, and so on. Each region has its own life and risks, but when you zoom out and look at the whole country, you can see that the life of a journalist, a columnist, or a public activist is close to unbearable in the regions. Because when you step back from specific stories and specific situations [and look at the broader picture], you may say that the environment is extremely aggressive, especially if the topics you are writing about while based in a given region are not federal [but local and regional]. Yes, it is comfortable for me to be in Kazan and manage a nationwide organization that operates in different regions. But if I focused all my “soldiers” in Kazan and they worked on Tatarstan-specific cases, then I would certainly feel what the local elites are capable of doing, what the local risks are, and what the local troubles can be. But we have been there, done that; we are not interested in that anymore.
SERGEY PARKHOMENKO: Yes, right, this is the famous close contact—things that are very close are the ones that sometimes—quite often, in fact—make life unbearable for the industry on the local level and put it in the situation in which a local media outlet either must make a deal with the authorities or disappear from the face of the Earth. And this is a close proximity danger, an immediate one. It is true, and we feel it keenly when we look at our colleagues in the regions, in our Redkollegia Award work and so on.
Roman, there is a question that is to a large extent meant for you. Our American listener Cynthia Hooper asks a question from a news consumer’s point of view. It may seem somewhat naïve at first glance, but it is in fact quite dramatic in my opinion. “Is there really mass demand for quality journalism?” I understand that one of your goals and one of the reasons for creating Vazhniye Istorii is to keep up some standards, the standards that you operated within when you were doing international collaborations. How do you evaluate demand for your work? Don’t you feel that you are working for a small group of connoisseurs who can appreciate a particularly proper journalism? Or do you educate your audience? How does it work?
ROMAN ANIN: Yes, you are right: it is a very innocent, a very appropriate and a very important question. The thing is, some time ago I concluded that our investigations are indeed mostly written by journalists and for journalists. And audiences in the regions really do not care much about these large-scale federal investigations. Very rarely, the audience responds to a big investigation. Perhaps one exception is [Navalny’s] film He Is Not Dimon to You [about Prime Minister Dmitry Medvedev—ed.]. Even then, if we are to talk about quality journalism and journalism standards, this undisputedly remarkable film does not meet these standards. To change the situation at least a little bit so that our investigations would not be written for other journalists but would resonate with the audience, we decided to do several things.
First, we decided to bring the regional topics into focus. If you look at the texts of Vazhnye Istorii, you will see that many of them are of a regional nature. These are regional investigations, which are very difficult to undertake locally, as Pavel correctly noted. So we did it on purpose, even though we understand that such investigations will be read less. The Russian Facebook audience will not read about an investigative report on corruption in Rostov-on-Don, but people in Rostov-on-Don will. To our surprise, we saw that by our humble standards, the regional pieces get a pretty good number of views from the regional audience.
Second, we decided to steer away a little bit from the kind of virtual corruption topics—like someone stole a billion dollars—to the corruption that people experience personally, namely in the housing and utilities sector. We all suffer from the garbage disposal issue. It is one of the key problems in the country. So we decided to investigate it. The next issue that we are working on is building renovation. Then we will get down to road issues. This is the corruption that people can see walking out of or into their apartment building. And in my view this [sort of investigation] should also elicit an audience response.
And lastly, I want to say that no matter how hard the authorities are trying to pour concrete on freedom of speech in Russia, in fact they end up doing exactly the opposite, just as with many other things in this country. The concrete pouring appears to be going well, but by doing it they are inducing people’s interest in the truth. And we see that in general, very few people in the regions are still watching federal TV channels. People pay more and more attention to problems, to why they are living in poverty, why the health care is in such a … well, why the health care is doing so badly, and why pensions are so small. By shutting down this steam release valve [i.e., local and regional investigative journalism—ed.], the Kremlin really made a mistake because people are growing more and more interested in our stories and we hope … I mean.… In fact, I have no illusions; I understand that those independent media that have recently emerged in Russia and that are still small—like ours, [Roman] Badanin’s Project [Proekt, an independent investigative media outlet—ed.], the Bell from Liza Osetinskaya, Meduza—in my view will soon be restrained, and they don’t have much time left. It does not mean that we will stop working as journalists. We will surely find a way out, but no matter what happens, I see a growing interest in true news among the audience.
SERGEY PARKHOMENKO: Thank you. I would like to return to Ivan and resume the conversation about the FSB. It does seem that several years ago, authorities were mostly relying on police forces. Center E played a big role in authorities’ relations with the press. It seemed that the police were the structure that [Russian authorities] mainly relied on in these issues. Now it seems that the FSB is getting out in front. Why? Is it because it is basically what they have been doing since the Soviet era? Or is it because it is the most integrated nationwide agency that has not been split into regional divisions? Or is it because of something else? I think it is important to understand internal mechanisms. Maybe there is someone next in line? Maybe they will pass it on to Rosgvardia [the Russian Guard, an internal military force that reports directly to the Russian President—ed.]? In your view, how is the function of applying pressure distributed between different law enforcement agencies?
IVAN PAVLOV: Yes, it is an interesting question. I would say that the most popular law enforcement agency is not yet the FSB. It is the police, because they are simply closer [to citizens], their work is visible; however, the police force has been changing and has been doing so in different directions. Sometimes [the authorities] tried to strengthen it, so to speak; sometimes, on the contrary, they tried to weaken it. One uniform was changed for another. First it was called a militia, then it was called police. It seemed that some liberalization was about to happen there. Whereas the FSB has always developed in the same direction.
If you look at the Law on Federal Security Service and the powers assigned to it.… First of all, there are many powers that refer to classified legal acts, which is a subject for a special discussion. I would like to give you a simple illustrative example. There is no single law that would have such a list of powers—they are usually listed as bullets—a, b, c, d, e, etc. The number of such bullet points for the FSB is the whole Russian alphabet. There is even a bullet “я” [the last letter of the Russian alphabet—ed.] and even “я.1.” Several bullet letters have numbers added to them. And the list is constantly growing. It has never shrunk. Never. Nothing was ever split off or delegated to other bodies. On the contrary, if another government agency had something that the FSB did not, the FSB would get it too. Even foreign intelligence is done by the FSB. See? In other words, it is a super-mega-body.
I reckon that the FSB is the most powerful special service in the world in terms of the scope of its powers, even if we consider just the tip of the iceberg, which all of us can see. There is also the underwater part. It could be even bigger than the above-water one. It is what we don’t see, but in fact these powers are granted to the FSB by classified legal acts and presidential decrees, mainly by the decrees. Besides, all that is then specified by orders of the FSB director. Perhaps none of the special services—actually, I am sure that no other service, ministry, or agency in Russia has so many enforcement powers as the FSB does. And everything indicates that the way it is evolving now, it is heading toward further expansion of its powers.
Why is this so? It is a different question. Our president comes from this agency, and probably it is under his personal guardianship, has his special care, because it is his institution, his alma mater, which in his view should grow and get stronger. And of course it affects the overall situation, the political situation in the country. The repression apparatus is concentrated in one agency and becomes absolutely uncontrollable, and even courts that consider cases.… We all understand how government officials feel about this agency, how they treat it with trepidation. Courts too. Judges’ hands shake when they get a case from the FSB, and then it is impossible to have a fair trial.
SERGEY PARKHOMENKO: Ivan, thank you. I would like to interrupt you right here. We do not have a lot of time left. Just about three minutes. Yet we have one more topic to discuss. I think it is very important, and I address it to Pavel. It is not about attack. It is about how to defend. Clearly, the community created by Agora consists of well-trained, competent, and very experienced people. They are shaped to deal with that list of issues [we have discussed]. Could you please briefly describe the general situation with Russian attorneys today? How well are they equipped to handle media-related cases, especially in the provinces? Does it make any sense for a journalist to go to a local attorney at all? Will he get protection and understanding? Will he find a professional? Or he will have to look for very special people for that?
PAVEL CHIKOV: I think it would be right to address this question to Ivan Pavlov, who is an attorney. But I will answer anyway. An attorney is always needed, he is never out of place, but of course one should look for very special people. Over the last five years a sufficient number of [such] attorneys have appeared in most of Russia’s regions, in all big cities, and usually more than one. And they are not only those who work with us. These are also attorneys who work with various other human rights organizations, or well-known freelance attorneys who have a good reputation. Those who specialize in this area, who know the ins and outs, who are well known, are the ones to go to because defending journalists’ freedom of speech is a special trick, and one must have the skills for that. I would say if we compare it with the situation ten years ago, today it has become much better—there are more attorneys available.
SERGEY PARKHOMENKO: Thank you. Thank you, Pavel. I have to apologize, but our sixty minutes are up. I am very grateful to my three guests and my future guests who will comment on the topic, and you will be able to read it on the Kennan Institute website. Thank you very much, thank you all who have been with us. I thank the Kennan Institute for bringing us together. I think that this conversation will continue and surely will not end with this conversation. Thank you, and all the best to you!