ST. PETERSBURG, RUSSIA - Recent allegations that an oligarch with close personal ties to Russian President Vladimir Putin is behind several attacks and at least one killing has compelled some journalists and free speech advocates to take a stand against intimidation tactics in Russia.
An October 22 Novaya Gazeta article by reporter Denis Korotkov, who just days prior to publication received a funeral wreath bearing an anonymous threat at his private residence and a severed goat’s head in a basket outside his newsroom, says billionaire businessman Yevgeny Prigozhin has directed clandestine hits on multiple continents.
Prigozhin, who is known as "Putin's Chef" for catering presidential events and sometimes personally waiting on important guests, has been indicted by American investigators for allegedly trying to interfere with the 2016 U.S. election.
In the investigative report about Prigozhin, headlined “The Chef Likes It Spicy,” Valery Alemchenko, a former convict who worked for Prigozhin, details physical attacks on Prigozhin’s opponents, as well as the killing of an opposition blogger in northwest Russia, all at the mogul’s behest.
Alemchenko also says several Prigozhin employees traveled to Syria last year to test an unknown poison on Syrians who refused to fight for President Bashar al-Assad’s government, an allegation Novaya Gazeta corroborated with two other sources.
Alemchenko disappeared shortly after meeting with the reporter and is now on a Russian police list of missing persons.
Danger of inaction
For Novaya Gazeta contributor Boris Vishnevsky, the latest threats and disappearances have taught him one thing: the greatest threat to his own colleagues and sources is their own inaction.
"I believe that the information published by Novaya Gazeta cannot remain only within the circle of its readers,” Vishnevsky told VOA's Russian Service, explaining why he has called upon Russia's prosecutor general and federal legislators to conduct an investigation of the latest allegations surrounding Prigozhin, and the threats against those who reported them.
“These are very serious suspicions of involvement in crimes, including the murders of people who, to put it mildly, are connected to Mr. Prigozhin and his structures," said Vishnevsky, who is also a deputy in the St. Petersburg Legislative Assembly. "This evidence should be checked, and I think there is enough - names are named, quotes are quoted. And to leave it unheeded seems to me quite impossible."
Vishnevsky’s appeal coincided with a statement by the Union of Journalists of the St. Petersburg and Leningrad region, who expressed concerns about the threats directed at Korotkov.
Asked whether Russian investigators would actively probe any of Putin's closest associates, Vishnevsky said that's beside the point.
"I'm not inclined to have big illusions about its results, especially about the conclusions that will be made,” he said. “Nevertheless, I want to see official explanations from the prosecutor general's office and the investigative committee on the reports of crimes contained in Denis Korotkov’s article.
"I understand that everything will be done to, in simple terms, cover up for Mr. Prigozhin," he added. "But if a verification is not demanded, then you cannot expect anything at all."
Because Article 144 of the Russian Criminal Code says crimes reported in the media require the consideration of federal prosecutors and investigators, Vishnevsky said he expects that some sort of investigation will be carried out.
'Second wave' of investigative reporting
Roman Zakharov of the Glasnost Defense Foundation, a non-governmental organization that advocates press freedom, said the threats against Korotkov are extremely serious, and that they come amid a "second wave" of hard-hitting investigative journalism occurring in Russia.
"The first surge of this genre was during the years of democratic development of Russia, but then it seemed to us to be something taken for granted,” Zakharov told VOA. “And now there is a second wave of investigations, and they are being conducted by many young journalists who write about economic crimes, about corruption, about the Mafia’s links with politicians."
With a surge in investigative reporting, he said, comes a surge in threats to reporters and editors behind the stories.
“Of course editors try to protect [their reporters], but, as we see from practice, the powers of the editors themselves are limited," he said, referring to the assassinations of Russian reporters stretching over decades. "But all joking aside, it's impossible to oppose the Mafia, much less the state steamroller."
As widely reported in Western media, some of Prigozhin's privately owned enterprises, such as the Concord catering company, were used to bankroll disinformation campaigns designed to interfere with U.S. elections. Earlier this month, U.S. officials brought charges against Prigozhin employee Elena Khusyaynova for helping oversee the finances of the St. Petersburg-based "Internet Research Agency," the so-called troll farm that aimed to influence American voters through social media postings.
Activities of Prigozhin's private security-contracting firm, Wagner - a mercenary outfit that has conducted operations in Ukraine, Syria, the Central African Republic and Sudan - are well documented.
'Don't touch journalists'
Another member of Prigozhin’s security detail, Oleg Simonov, who is suspected of attacking the husband of an opposition activist and injecting him with poison, died last year under murky circumstances.
"Behind it all - written messages, funeral wreaths and a severed sheep's head - as we know from past investigations, these are people who will stop at nothing and shrink from nothing," Zakharov said, emphasizing that they "aren't even averse to murdering their own associates."
"There is the need to gather the entire journalistic community and citizens and say 'No, Mr. Prigozhin! Don't touch journalists, don't threaten them,'" Zakharov said. "If you do not agree with the publications, sue them in court. Act by legal means, even if the Kremlin and the authorities are on your side.
"We hope that due to these public disclosures, there will be none of the excesses that have occurred with some other journalists," Zakharov added, referring to "assault and battery ... and also murders."
Russia is currently ranked 148 out of 180 countries profiled in the 2018 World Press Freedom Index by international media watchdog Reporters Without Borders.
This story originated in VOA's Russian Service. Some information for this report was provided by AP.