MOSCOW - When 40-year-old Svetlana Prokopyeva penned her column about an October 2018 suicide bombing by a 17-year-old student at the Federal Security Service (FSB) offices in Arkhangelsk, Russia, she had no inkling of what she would be bringing on herself.
The perpetrator killed himself in the blast and injured three FSB officers, announcing beforehand on an anarchist chat forum that he was doing so because the security agency “fabricates cases and tortures people.”
Prokopyeva tried in her commentary to enter the state of mind of the teenage bomber, to analyze his motives, arguing the Russian government’s repressive policies and its squelching of dissent and opposition was to blame. “A young citizen who has only seen prohibitions and punishments from the government in his life has not been able to invent any other means of communication. Cruelty breeds cruelty. The ruthless state has created a citizen whose only argument is death,” she wrote.
Now Prokopyeva, who works in the northwestern Russian city of Pskov for the independent Moscow-based radio station Ekho Moskvy and is a freelance reporter for the U.S. government-funded Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty, is facing a possible seven year jail term. Her apartment was raided by the security services, her laptops, phones and flash drives taken, and in July her name was added to an official list of “extremists and terrorists,” allowing the authorities to block her bank accounts and credit cards.
Last month, she was charged formally with publicly justifying terrorism and banned from traveling beyond the Pskov region. Journalists covering her case have complained they have been harassed.
Her case has prompted an international outcry by journalist organizations. The European Federation of Journalists dubs her case an “obvious attempt to intimidate journalists” and has called on the Russian government to stop misusing terrorism legislation to silence reporters.
Rights groups are highlighting her case as yet another example of the increasingly reduced space authorities are permitting independent journalists in a media landscape dominated by outlets owned by the state or Kremlin-linked oligarchs.
Last week, Russia’s few remaining independent news outlets published an open letter written by Prokopyeva in which she said that as the possibility of a criminal case against her was growing ever more likely she and her colleagues “just laughed and called the bureaucrats crazy. Where in hell was this ‘justification of terrorism’”?
Speaking to VOA via an encrypted messaging app — she has been tipped off her home phone is bugged — Prokopyeva said even Russia’s independent journalists are becoming “accustomed to filter information,” or self-censorship. Now apparently “it is impossible to analyze a terrorist attack, because the government can consider it a justification of terrorism,’” she says.
“My column was in accordance with the law. There’s no slander, the opinions are not formed as facts. Since we have freedom of speech in our Constitution, I thought I had rights to express my opinion and I did. Roskomnadzor (Federal Communications, Information Technologies and Mass Media Regulatory Authority) hasn’t cited any exact words or phrases, where it saw justification of terrorism,” she says.
She says she was surprised by the reaction of the authorities and might think twice about writing such a commentary again. The police raid, she said, was humiliating.
“They came around 12 p.m, I had just came from Moscow where I was presenting a book about the Pskov region. They didn’t talk much to me. There was a crowd in my apartment, I was just sitting on the chair, they said: ‘here’s a warrant to search, we start.’ They checked literally everything, each paper, all laptops, searched all my belongings. This procedure is nasty. It took around five or six hours,” she says.
Journalists covering her case also face difficulties. Last week, Pskov authorities summoned the editor of Ekho Moskvy’s Pskov affiliate, and the editor of a local independent news-site, after both outlets published Prokopyeva’s open letter. The editors say they were interrogated but are not able to elaborate more because of a non-disclosure agreement they were required to sign.
“The prosecution of journalist Svetlana Prokopyeva and the intimidation and harassment of journalists reporting on her case shows how far Russian authorities will go to silence independent voices,” according to the New York-based Committee for the Protection of Journalists. “The charges against Prokopyeva should be dropped and other journalists must be allowed to cover her case freely,” the organization said in a statement.
Prokopyeva’s case is not the only one prompting the growing alarm of Russia’s independent media. Last week, the website of the Fergana Russian news agency, an outlet mainly covering the central Asian republics of the former Soviet Union, was blocked by Roskomnadzor without any justification offered.
The move was condemned by the rights group Amnesty International as “another arbitrary attack on freedom of expression in Russia.”
“The authorities may have believed that they could silence Fergana without anybody noticing, but they are wrong. Independent media outlets such as Fergana are rare in Russia but, to the authorities’ annoyance, they have a dedicated audience in Russia and beyond,” said Amnesty International’s Russia Director Natalia Zviagina.