"Independent Journalists are Perceived by the Authorities as Enemies"

Journalist and editor of the Northwest-Russian news-site Sever.Realii, Svetlana Prokopyeva in court wearing a T-shirt with the slogan: "We will not shut up". Photo: Zelenysh Nelubin

According to Svetlana Prokopyeva, journalism is an increasingly risky profession to perform in Russia. In an interview with High North News, the Russian journalist talks about the current state of media freedom and her ongoing criminal case.

Svetlana Prokopyeva, journalist and editor of the Northwest-Russian news-site Sever.Realii, faces up to seven years in prison after the Roskomnadzor accused her of promoting terrorism. Roskomnadzor is a Russian federal executive branch responsible for supervision of communications, information technology and mass media in the country.

Photo: Aleksandr Sidorenko
The lawyers representing Prokopyeva filed for an appeal in July 2020. Photo: Aleksandr Sidorenko

"At the trial, a young woman present, an employee of the Roskomnadzor, could not actually explain what she considered to be a violation of the law and what she saw as the "justification of terrorism". The head of the territorial department of the Roskomnadzor could not say what it was either. It was just that they didn’t like the statements. The statements criticized the state, and that’s sailing close to the wind!", Prokopyeva says to High North News.

Tried to understand

In 2018, a suicide bomber attacked an FSB building in Arkhangelsk. The bomber killed himself and injured several others in the attack. 

Appearing on the radio station Ekho Moskvy in November 2018, Prokopyeva tried to understand the causes of the tragic attack. In the broadcast, she said that political activism in Russia has become gravely restricted, leading people to despair.

On 6 February 2019, law enforcement officers searched Prokopyeva’s home and confiscated her belongings. On 6 July 2020, she was found guilty in “justifying terrorism” by a Russian court, sentencted to a fine of 500,000 rubles and placed on a government list over "terrorists and extremists".

Shortly after the trial, the lawyers representing Prokopyeva filed for an appeal.

"It is extremely difficult to write about terrorism. In fact, this subject is now out of bounds for the media. As is demonstrated by the criminal case against me, everyone can see that trying to investigate the causes of a terrorist attack now is tantamount to a criminal offence", she says. 

The state was being criticised in it; that’s sailing close to the wind!
Svetlana Prokopyeva

“Fake news law”

In 2019, Russia introduced a new regulation commonly called “fake news law”. This legislation criminalizes media outlets and publications that publish "unreliable" information and opinions that show "disrespect for society, government, state symbols, the constitution and government institutions". 

The legislation has been criticized for its vague and unclear wording. 

What is it like to be working as a journalist in Russia in 2020, compared to five or ten years ago? What has changed?

"The areas in which freedom of speech exists have been shrinking all these years. I don't know about five years ago, but ten years ago, I wouldn't have faced a criminal case like this. Nowadays, independent journalists are perceived by the authorities as enemies. They’re scared to talk to us even about ordinary news events and reluctant to give information or respond to requests", she says and continues:

"I believe the Roskomnadzor is a censorship agency that is absolutely superfluous, unnecessary and useless. As soon as there is change of power in the country to a democratic system, when the government, state corporations and the post of president cease to be occupied by people whose sole purpose is to hold onto power, Roskomnadzor must be done away with. Eliminated entirely."

Prokopyeva says that she received her first warning from the Roskomnadzor two years ago. 

"The first time was in 2018, when the newspaper "Pskovskaya Guberniya" received a warning for my column about the presidential elections. I used a phrase in it that apparently said, "Putin usurped power", which was seen as extremism. Fortunately, we got away with a warning and an inspection, without any repercussions for me or the editorial team."

Almost any law can be used against any journalist who is out of favour
Svetlana Prokopyeva

Controversial topics and freedom of speech

Which of the Russian media laws affects russian journalists the most?

"It's hard to say. They all have an impact. Perhaps the law on the protection of children from information has the biggest impact. But you need to keep in mind that almost all the laws passed in recent years which relate in one way or other to social and political matters, have been adopted precisely to silence the government’s critics in the broadest sense of the word. Almost any law can be used against any journalist who is out of favour", claims Prokopyeva. 

"Laws that introduce the concept of "media equals foreign agent" so far have an impact on the work of editors, not journalists. Though we all expect that foreign media correspondents will also soon become "foreign agents", with all the unpleasant consequences that entails."

What are the most difficult or dangerous topics to cover in Russia in your opinion? 

"We can still cover any subject, but we must do so with the utmost caution. We have to choose our words carefully and filter quotes from the main characters in our stories. This has a negative impact on the literary qualities of the texts. It makes them more insipid, boring, less elegant."

She elaborates:

"The anti-extremism laws make it dangerous to criticise the authorities and those politicians who, by hook or by crook, have been in their seats for decades. Russia’s fake news law makes it very difficult to work on material about the pandemic. It is impossible to report about what people are afraid of, what doctors or patients are unhappy about, if you don’t have all the documents to corroborate this", she says in closing. 

Prokopyeva is currently unable to open a bank account in her own name, and she is unable to travel outside of the city where she lives.

International condemnation

Anthony Bellanger, the Secretary General of The International Federation of Journalists commented on the trial in July:

“Svetlana Prokopyeva cannot legitimately be found guilty of any crime, just for exercising her freedom of speech and reporting. We condemn this ruling that aims to intimidate Russian journalists and call for Svetlana’s total acquittal“.