In Russia, business interests are protected by the state. When human rights violations or environmental damage are reported, nepotism and corrupt dealings between officials and business usually plays a large role. In these cases, no matter how serious the allegations or how strong the evidence, business owners skirt trouble while journalists and bloggers face real problems.
When copper and nickel ore deposits were discovered on the banks of the Khopyor River near a nature reserve in the Voronezhskaya oblast in 2012, the Ural Mining and Metallurgic Company (UGMK) was selected to exploit the deposits. Local residents and environmentalists protested when the company began prepping the site for extraction. Opponents were convinced that the development would cause environmental damage to the reserve and the river. Despite the objections, regional authorities granted UGMK permission to proceed with the project. In summer 2013 protests turned violent with clashes between the protesters and police and security hired by the company.
Research conducted by environmental activists and journalists uncovered alleged ties between UGMK’s owners, Iskander Makhmudov and Andrey Bokarev, and Kremlin-connected businessmen including Gennadi Timchenko and Vladimir Yakunin, close friends of the Russian president Vladimir Putin. The investigators also disclosed the involvement of several European companies.
Following the disclosures, two local activists, Mikhail Bezmensky and Igor Zhitenev, who published the information were accused of attempting to solicit a bribe from the company in order to halt the protests. Both were arrested and jailed. One more blogger, who faced threats, fled Russia and received political asylum in the EU.
Local mass media controlled by the department of property relations of the Voronezh region began spreading the allegation that a group of outsiders was trying to destabilise the situation. A Volgograd MP and businessman Oleg Pakholkov, sponsored by UGMK, launched Khozyaistvo Chernozyemya, a weekly newspaper with a circulation of about 60,000.
The paper routinely devoted five or six pages to laudatory coverage of nickel mining on the Khopyor, while the public protests were presented as a dirty competitive technique, an anti-state provocation, or a personal PR campaign of the protest activists. Other articles were about the positive experience of the Ural Mining and Metallurgic Company, the benefit of the project for the regional economy and its environmental safety.
Despite the ongoing protests mounted by opponents and periodic disclosures of corruption revealed by independent investigations UGMK continues to work on extracting the ore. The local activists still hope that Russia’s economic crisis, the collapse of commodity prices and their protests will help them stop the mining.
The UGMK investigations is just one example of the potential risks that journalists and bloggers face when they start publishing about Russia’s businesses.
In fact, a considerable part of the media rights violations in Russia reported to Mapping Media Freedom are against journalists who are prevented from reporting about corporations.
Officials and Putin-connected business owners who have been named in the Panama Papers leak have so far received full protection in the Kremlin-backed media while independent journalists and bloggers who reported on the disclosures have been accused of “undermining Russian interests for Western money” and face legal charges.
Aleksei Navalnyi, an opposition leader and the author of dozens of high-profile investigations into misconduct and corruption committed by state corporations has been charged three times since 2012 with crimes that he has not committed, including defamation and fraud.
The state has almost officially recognised that Navalnyi has been persecuted for his investigations. In 2013 Vladimir Markin, a spokesperson for Russia’s investigative committee, told the pro-Kremlin newspaper Izvestia that accusations against Navalnyi would not have been raised had the blogger not “teased power”.
In the last two months, three cases of journalists being targeted by corporate interests have been reported to Mapping Media Freedom.
On 12 April, while covering truckers who were protesting against the actions of transport company Omega, its director Evgeni Rutkovski attacked journalist Anton Siliverstov. When Siliverstov asked Rutkovski to comment on the protest, Rutkovsky forced Siliverstov from the office. The journalist said he would record the incident on his phone, at which point Rutkovski snatched the journalist’s device, refused to give it back and called security.
Two days later, reporter Igor Dovidovich was assaulted by the head of Gaz-Service, a gas company he was investigating. His TV crew was also attacked by the firm’s employees.
The month ended with state oil company Rosneft filing a judicial complaint against BiznessPress for an article which, the firm said, is “false and represents baseless fantasies of journalists or their so-called sources”.
Without support from news organisations or media laws to look to for protection, bloggers are often more vulnerable than journalists. While those reporting these crimes are often defenceless, those committing them often benefit.