The poisoning of Alexei Navalny is a press freedom story
By Jon Allsop
Last Thursday, Alexei Navalny drank a cup of tea in a Russian airport, which is a risky thing to do when you’re a prominent opponent of the country’s president, Vladimir Putin. Navalny, who had been in Siberia working with opposition candidates, fell ill shortly after boarding a flight back to Moscow, necessitating an emergency landing. The news quickly got out, and observers worldwide feared that Navalny had met the same fate as many other critics of Putin: poison. Forty-four hours later, Navalny was on a plane again, in a coma this time, and bound not for Moscow but for Germany, where he was to receive treatment. Navalny’s Russian doctors had initially insisted that he wasn’t well enough to make the trip—a bid, many observers suspected, to buy enough time for the poison in his system to become undetectable. If it was a ploy, it didn’t work. Yesterday, German physicians suggested that Navalny was poisoned, possibly by a nerve agent. His life is not currently thought to be at risk, but he may not make a full recovery, either.
The physicians’ conclusion flatly contradicted reports that have circulated in Russian state and pro-government media since Navalny was taken ill. (A sample narrative: Navalny had a hangover and poisoned himself trying to cure it.) We don’t yet know, of course, the exact details of what did happen—but we do know that Russian dissidents and exiles have suffered similar attacks with a frequency that belies coincidence. Tea has been involved more than once: cups containing it poisoned the investigative journalist Anna Politkovskaya, in 2004 (she recovered, only to be gunned down in 2006), and the former Russian agent Alexander Litvinenko, who died in London in 2006. British officials concluded that Putin probably ordered Litvinenko’s assassination himself, and they pointed the finger at the Russian state again in 2018, after another ex-agent, Sergei Skripal, and his daughter were poisoned in the UK. The Skripals survived, as did Vladimir Kara-Murza, an opposition activist who believes that he has been poisoned twice, in 2015 and 2017, and Pyotr Verzilov, a member of the dissident group Pussy Riot who believes that he was poisoned in 2018. Navalny himself may already have been poisoned last year, during a spell in prison. Russian officials pinned his condition then on “allergies.”
As the poisonings indicate, Russia is a harsh climate for speech that deviates from the official line, including independent journalism. (Russia ranks 149th out of 180 countries and territories on Reporters Without Borders’s 2020 World Press Freedom Index.) In recent months alone, Russian authorities have variously fined, attacked, and arrested reporters covering the spread of COVID-19 in the country and a constitutional referendum that paved the way for Putin to remain in power until 2036. In June, Ivan Golunov, an investigative reporter with the news site Meduza, was arrested on drug charges that were widely decried as bogus, and eventually dropped. Last month, a court convicted the journalist Svetlana Prokopyeva on terror-related charges linked to remarks she made about an anarchist bombing on secret-police property. (She was spared jail time, but was fined and had electronics confiscated.) The next day, the secret police detained Ivan Safronov, a former military correspondent who recently took a job advising Russia’s space agency, on treason charges linked to his past reporting. Many journalists came out to protest his treatment. At least 18 of them were arrested for doing so.
On Friday, Ilya Lozovsky wrote, for the Organized Crime and Corruption Reporting Project, that Navalny’s “most enduring legacy” may not be as an electoral candidate, but rather as “the producer of an unorthodox, but highly effective, brand of investigative journalism.” Through his Anti-Corruption Foundation, Navalny has published slick, meticulous videos documenting the corruption and extravagant wealth of senior politicians—including Putin—and their families. The videos “don’t follow journalistic standards and never try to listen to the other side,” Roman Anin, editor of the investigative outlet IStories, told Lozovsky. Still, Anin said, Navalny has created “probably the most effective investigative media outlet in the country. The number of stories they publish, the creative way they find the stories and deliver them to their audience, is something we should learn from.”
Navalny’s relationship with Russia’s independent media is complicated. A few weeks prior to his poisoning, Meduza’s Svetlana Reyter reported that relations, arguably, “have never been more strained.” Reporters have accused Navalny of unbecoming conduct, and of inaccuracies in his investigative work. Navalny, in turn, has attacked multiple outlets for not being oppositional enough to Putin, and for what he perceives as insufficient coverage of his foundation’s findings. Sometimes, he’s attacked reporters in highly personal terms—he recently told Golunov, of Meduza, that reading his work is like “watching a cat get chainsawed.”
In the eyes of the Russian state, though, Navalny’s speech and that of reporters such as Golunov adds up to roughly the same thing: intolerable dissent. In recent months, the brutal state response to protests in the US has reminded American reporters and their readers that while protesters and the press serve different functions, they enjoy broadly the same category of speech rights, and suffer in similar ways when those get trampled. The same is true internationally, and is felt most painfully in countries, like Russia, where speech rights are highly precarious. Whether or not you class Navalny as a journalist—and it’s an open question—his poisoning looks, in a sense, like yet another assault on press freedom.
Below, more on Navalny, Russia, and international press freedom:
- Pay attention: Kara-Murza, the opposition activist who believes he was poisoned in 2015 and 2017, writes for the Washington Post that the world must pay attention to Navalny’s case. “It is much easier to commit a crime in silence than in the spotlight; I am living testimony to that,” Kara-Murza argues. “For now, in the West, there should be no more talk of new ‘resets’ with a regime that speaks with its opponents in the language of bullets and poison.”
- The state of the independent press: In a recent report for Harvard’s Shorenstein Center, Ann Cooper assesses the current state of journalism under Putin. “The Kremlin does hold a Soviet-like grip on Russian TV, where the leader and his policies are never wrong,” she writes. “But today’s Russian media is not a Soviet-style monolith. That was clear in the spring of 2020 as the pandemic unfolded and its story was told by many voices on multiple platforms—by Russian medical workers on social media, by bloggers and tiny news sites in remote regions, by recent independent news startups led by some of the country’s most respected journalists, and by some older outlets that still manage to tell true stories in spite of Kremlin pressures.”
- Meanwhile, next door: Protests are continuing in Belarus, a country neighboring Russia whose authoritarian president, Alexander Lukashenko, has come under sustained pressure following an election that was widely seen as fraudulent. Lukashenko has aimed to suppress the protests: on Sunday, he appeared in public with a rifle in a show of defiance; yesterday, his security forces arrested two prominent opposition leaders. Lukashenko has also cracked down on independent journalism. Last week, the Associated Press reported that more than 50 news sites have been blocked in Belarus.
- Press freedom in brief: According to the Committee to Protect Journalists, a soldier in Ghana recently attacked Stanley Nii Blewu, a TV reporter, and confiscated his equipment. Elsewhere, authorities in Iraqi Kurdistan reportedly raided the broadcaster NRT and arrested three of its journalists. And Reuters reports that humanitarian workers in Myanmar’s Rakhine State are demanding that officials reinstate high-speed internet in the region to help counter the spread of COVID-19.
Other notable stories:
- The Republican convention opened yesterday and—as expected—featured a volley of lies and absurdities. During the day, CNN cut away from a speech by Trump after he started lying about mail-in voting. Other networks cut into the convention programming to offer fact checks; MSNBC did so especially aggressively. Night-one speakers included Senator Tim Scott, a couple from St. Louis who rose to infamy pointing guns at Black Lives Matters protesters, Kimberly Guilfoyle (who, Mashable noted, went full Dwight Schrute), and her partner, Donald Trump, Jr. Yesterday, both Jason Zengerle, of the Times Magazine, and Sarah Ellison, of the Post, published profiles of Trump, Jr., who, as Ellison puts it, looks like “the future of Trumpism… if Trumpism turns out not to be a political philosophy but a media-savvy culture-war incubator.”
- Yesterday, Vanity Fair published its September issue, which was edited by Ta-Nehisi Coates, and focuses on race, the protests that have followed the police killing of George Floyd, and Black creators. The cover features the painter Amy Sherald’s portrait of Breonna Taylor, a Black medical technician who was killed by police in Louisville, Kentucky, in March; Coates spoke with Tamika Palmer, Taylor’s mother, and writes, in an editor’s note, that “evil does its business in the shadows, ever-fearing not the heat of the Great Fire but the light.” The issue dropped the day after police in Kenosha, Wisconsin, repeatedly shot Jacob Blake, a Black man, in the back. Blake is now stable in hospital. Yesterday, protests intensified in Kenosha, and Wisconsin sent in the National Guard.
- Aram Roston, of Reuters, reports that the wife of the evangelical leader Jerry Falwell, Jr., had a long-term affair with a Miami pool attendant turned businessman, and that Falwell watched. Before the story dropped, Falwell outlined his own version of events (according to which he didn’t like to watch) to the Washington Examiner. Per the Post, Falwell agreed to resign as president of Liberty University yesterday—then un-resigned. (In May, Bob Norman explored how Falwell and Liberty treat the media for CJR.)
- Hoax, CNN host Brian Stelter’s new book about Fox News, reports that hosts on the network routinely make editorial decisions with Trump in mind, that the network has effectively been rudderless since the ouster of Roger Ailes, and that Attorney General William Barr told Rupert Murdoch to “muzzle” Fox commentator Andrew Napolitano after he criticized Trump.
- Recently, Trump signed executive orders aimed at barring “transactions” related to the Chinese-owned apps TikTok and WeChat, effective in mid-September. TikTok will be spared if it finds a new buyer, but yesterday, it took the Trump administration to court in a bid to overturn the order, on the grounds that its national-security rationale is bogus. As part of its lawsuit, TikTok for the first time revealed data on its monthly active usership.
- For CJR, Jason Cherkis looks back on his work as a police and crime reporter at the Washington City Paper. “I didn’t realize it, but I worked in a system, with rules. As much as my stories challenged the police, I often wrote from their point of view,” Cherkis writes. “When I read some of my crime stories now, I think I sound like a cop.”
- In her newsletter, HEATED, Emily Atkin calls on major newspapers to invest in sweeping climate coverage amid waning public interest in the subject. “There’s an obvious, easy fix for this: just connect climate change to the coronavirus,” Atkin writes. “Yet our biggest news institutions aren’t often doing this, and certainly not in a big-picture way.”
- Yesterday, Daniel Drepper, the editor in chief of BuzzFeed Germany, announced that the site has found a local buyer: Ippen Digital will fold BuzzFeed Germany into its editorial network, while retaining the site’s existing brand and staff. Recently, BuzzFeed has retrenched its overseas news operations in France, the UK, and Australia amid losses.
- And Vanity Fair’s Emily Jane Fox reports that in April, Michael Cohen, Trump’s jailed former fixer, burned a 500-page book manuscript to stop prison guards from finding it and leaking it to the press. Cohen’s wife kept a digital copy as a backup. The book—a tell-all about Cohen’s dirty work for the president—is due out on September 8.