Russia's dwindling band of liberal-minded opposition journalists is shrinking fast in the face of a spate of terror attacks. The Kremlin insists it has nothing to do with the violence. But critics say the government has stoked a hostile atmosphere in the country by demonizing liberal reporters as traitors.
“The level of neurosis and hysteria is growing, with official attempts to find scapegoats to blame,” says Dmitry Muratov, the editor of one of the few remaining opposition newspapers, Novaya Gazeta.
The latest victim was Tatiana Felgenhauer, a Kremlin critic with a popular radio program on Ekho Moskvy. She was stabbed in the neck last week at the station’s studio and rushed to the hospital.
Ms. Felgenhauer was attacked in the wake of two separate programs on state TV that had denounced her, by name, for supporting foreign-funded nongovernmental organizations.
Days later, Ekho Moskvy’s chief editor announced that he had told another of the station’s journalists, Ksenia Larina, to leave Russia in the wake of a personal assault on her, also broadcast on state TV.
Last September, Novaya Gazeta columnist and Ekho Moskvy program host Yulia Latynina fled the country after her car was set on fire and her family received death threats.
The Kremlin says that the violence is the work of mentally disturbed individuals. But human rights advocates argue that the stage has been set by an official media campaign that brands liberal activists and reporters as “fifth columnists” and “foreign agents,” creating an atmosphere of hatred that encourages some ultranationalists to take matters into their own hands.
“In general, the level of aggression in society is very high these days,” says Oleg Anisimov, an expert with the independent Foundation to Support the Mass Media in Moscow. “Perhaps this is due to the economic crisis, or the tone of the official media. But there is no doubt that journalists need to be better protected.”
More than 300 Russian journalists have been killed in the line of duty since the collapse of the Soviet Union. Although the death rate has slowed significantly in recent years, the recent incidents have prompted Mr. Muratov to arm Novaya Gazeta staff members with non-lethal gas pistols with which to protect themselves.
“There have been too many cases where people have been attacked when they had no means to defend themselves,” he says.
Novaya Gazeta has seen six of its journalists murdered since 2001, including Anna Politkovskaya, a vocal Kremlin critic who earned fame for her reporting from Chechnya. The paper has never before taken the drastic step of arming its employees, but Muratov says the attacks on Felgenhauer and Ms. Latynina and the increased presence online and on the streets of ultranationalist groups such as SERB, the South East Radical Bloc, herald heightened danger.
“We believe groups like SERB are behind this” wave of antijournalist violence, Muratov says. “They are a kind of embodiment of the hatred evident in public opinion. The state not only distances itself, it pretends that it has nothing to do with it. It's a kind of hybrid violence, but we know where it's coming from. So, we’re going to ensure our people have the means of self-protection if they need it.”
The police say a Russian-Israeli dual citizen who claimed that Felgenhauer had been “harassing” him telepathically for years has confessed to stabbing her.
Speaking to journalists on Monday, President Vladimir Putin expressed sympathy for Felgenhauer but deflected any suggestion that the Kremlin might have been involved in the attack.
“What does freedom of speech have to do with this?” he wondered. “A sick person arrived from Israel, attacked this journalist. Ekho Moskvy is funded by the government,” Mr. Putin said. The station belongs to the media arm of Gazprom, the state natural gas monopoly.
A 'free pass' for thugs
Latynina wrote in the English-language daily The Moscow Times recently that she had never expected to flee Russia, even during the worst times – during the 1990s and early Putin years – when large numbers of journalists were being murdered. But she said the atmosphere had recently grown more insidious and more unpredictable as a flailing Kremlin outsourced violence and intimidation to murderous thugs.
“It’s not that Putin or the Kremlin are directly instigating these kinds of attacks,” she wrote. “They are winking at those who want to organize them. They’re empowering ‘local talent’ and those people are given a free pass. Some of them are crazy. Some are in search of some power or want to curry favor.
“This doesn’t absolve the Kremlin from responsibility,” she argued. “It makes it worse.”