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Russia: A journalist sets herself on fire in protest against the crackdown on freedom of expression

Earlier this month in Nizhny Novgorod, as an act of deliberate political protest against the crackdown on freedom of expression, a Russian journalist died after setting herself on fire in front of the local branch of the interior ministry, a day after her apartment was searched by police. 

The city is notorious for a very active “anti-extremism” department in the local police, largely focused on suppressing political opposition.

Prior to her self-immolation, Irina Slavina, the founder and editor of Koza Press, a local, independent news site, wrote on Facebook: 

“I ask you to blame the Russian Federation for my death.”

Evgeny Gubin, her lawyer, told the BBC:

“She wrote about excesses by the security forces and the authorities. She wrote tough, direct and honest reports and they didn’t like that. So she was in their sights.” 

Mr Gubin defended Ms Slavina in many court cases brought against her by the authorities. Over the years, she had been charged with organising an illegal protest, working for a banned pro-democracy group when she reported on a political forum, and for spreading fake news when she wrote about a local outbreak of coronavirus.

“There were probably 10 or 12 administrative cases against her and they all ended in fines. In the past 18 months, the prosecutions were constant.”

The final straw was a search of the journalist’s home the day before her death.

She posted on Facebook: 

“They took what they found – all the flash drives, my laptop, my daughter’s laptop, computer, phones – not only mine, but also my husband’s, a bunch of notebooks on which I scribbled during press conferences.”

“I was left without the means of production.”

In response to Ms Slavina’s death, thousands took to the streets in Nizhny Novgorod to mourn the journalist.

Ms Slavina’s death comes against the backdrop of rising dangers confronting journalists who write about subjects deemed objectionable by the Kremlin. The number of threats and attacks against journalists in the country has surged in recent years, according to incidents compiled by Justice for Journalists, an advocacy group.

“Russia remains a country where working as a journalist is associated with increased risks to life, health and freedom,” 

the group says on its website.

Russia ranks 149th out of 180 on the Reporters Without Borders’ World Press Freedom Index 2020. 

Since this summer’s referendum on the constitutional changes that allows Putin to remain president until 2036, the Kremlin has carried out a serious crackdown on press freedom. There has been a very effective effort to control the internet and silence all dissent. Dozens of journalists were detained whilst covering protests and several high-profile cases, such as the charges against Ivan Safronov and Svetlana Prokopyev, made it the ‘summer of unfreedom’. 

During “Summer of Unfreedom”, Russian journalist awarded CPJ Press Freedom Award

On Saturday 10 October, police in Russia continued the crackdown on freedom of expression as they broke up a long-running anti-Kremlin protest with force in Khabarovsk in Russia’s Far East. More than 25 people were detained according to local authorities.

The demonstrations in the city of Khabarovsk have been going on for the last three months against President Vladimir Putin’s handling of a regional political crisis and thousands of protesters marched across the city on Saturday.

Residents of Khabarovsk started holding weekly rallies after the detention of Sergei Furgal, the region’s popular governor, on 9 July over murder charges which he denies. The protests have highlighted anger among some over what they see as policies emanating from detached Moscow-based authorities who have neglected them for years.

“Putin has turned Russia into a pariah state,” 

Aleksei Libatov, a Khabarovsk native employed in logistics, told RFE/RL at a recent protest. 

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