20 years under Putin: a timeline

Journalists in Russia are under growing pressure simply for doing their job. Attacks on independent investigative projects have become routine, while high-profile officials and businessmen increasingly engage in litigation against journalists and bloggers over the slightest sign of criticism. Given the Russian courts’ practice, the former have powerful legal tools to stifle press freedom in the country.

 

The Glasnost Defense Foundation estimates that 140 instances of criminal libel cases against journalists and bloggers were registered between 2004 and 2020—the majority of them initiated by high-profile officials and businessmen. Photo: Ruslan Krivobok | RIA Novosti (via Wikimedia Commons).

 

Unforgivable investigation

In the summer of 2016, Novaya Gazeta published an investigation by Russian journalist Roman Anin titled “The Secret of Princess Olga. How is head of Rosneft Igor Sechin linked to one of the most luxurious yachts in the world?” At the time of publication, the yacht was among the top 100 largest yachts in the world, but the identity of the owner, who named it St. Princess Olga, had been kept secret. 

During his investigation into the yacht’s owner, Anin collated data from open sources. For instance, it was reported that at a June 2016 private party, Igor Sechin, who had previously divorced his first wife, was spotted with a blond woman, whose Instagram and Facebook accounts were later discovered by Novaya Gazeta. The woman’s name was Olga Rozhkova, but the newspaper also established that in 2011 she had changed her last name to Sechina. Her Instagram featured numerous photographs from a luxurious yacht in Sardinia and Corsica. Looking into potential connections between Sechin’s new wife and the Princess Olga yacht, Anin compared data from her Instagram posts to the communications of the automatic identification system installed on St. Princess Olga (publicly available through vessel traffic services, such as vesseltracker.com). These geotags repeatedly coincided with St. Princess Olga’s movements; certain interiors captured by Mrs. Sechina on her Instagram were also strikingly similar to those of the luxurious yacht in question. These data suggested an obvious conclusion about the owner, but Anin was careful in his reporting not to state Sechin’s ownership as a fact, but rather asked questions about his potential connection to it. The questions were valid, given that, reportedly, Sechin’s official salary is $12 million per year and his wife Olga’s is around $480,000 per year, while the yacht’s price was estimated to be at least $100 million.

One would think that being the CEO of the largest state-owned company in Russia, Sechin and his incomes are natural subjects to journalistic scrutiny. Anin’s investigation indeed caused a stir and triggered a criminal investigation—but not against Igor Sechin. Russia’s Investigative Committee (IC) determined that the newspaper’s reposting of Olga Sechina’s photographs from her private Instagram account violated her right to privacy (Part 2, Article 137 of the Criminal Code, “Invasion of Personal Privacy,” with a penalty of up to four years in prison). The fact that Mrs. Sechina’s account was public and had more than 400 subscribers did not bother the IC, which acted as if the identity of the journalist was unknown and involved the FSB for surveillance. Among other things, this allowed the investigators to gain access to phone call and email data of several Novaya Gazeta journalists. In 2017, the case was put on hold. 

Fast forward to 2021, when the IC decided to resume its investigation, even though by now Anin had launched his own independent investigative media project, IStories (Important Stories), and served as its editor-in-chief. In April, FSB officers conducted a seven-hour search at Anin’s home in relation to the yacht case. Coincidentally or not, this happened three weeks after IStories released its own investigation into Rosneft’s 2014 purchase of a 13 percent stake in the European tire manufacturer Pirelli—this €553 million ($655 million) deal was flagged in February 2021 for lack of transparency in a major journalistic investigation of the Luxemburg shell companies.

Due the “special complexity” of the yacht case, the IC transferred it to the Main Investigation Department and engaged the FSB for support. Though IStories was launched in 2020 and therefore did not even exist at the time of the yacht investigation, a search was also carried out in the media outlet’s editorial office. Russian law enforcement officers’ actions were immediately condemned by the international journalistic community and the European Union for violation of press freedom.

Anin’s persecution is not limited to the criminal case against him. Igor Sechin also filed a libel suit to protect his “honor, dignity, and business reputation” (Article 152 of the Civil Code). It seems strange that he found libel in an investigation that simply states the facts about the yacht, identifies coincidences in open data, and asks a valid question about Sechin’s connection to the yacht. Nevertheless, the court decided that Anin meant that the yacht belonged to Sechin or his wife, and his accusations—“this information, not a certain verbal form of presenting this information,” according to the ruling—violated Sechin’s rights. In other words, the court put the conclusions about Sechin’s ownership of the yacht into the journalist’s mouth, even though the latter was specifically careful not to draw them, and punished both him and Novaya Gazeta for that.

 

Notorious litigator

Igor Sechin (and Rosneft) is ill-famed for bringing journalists to court over publishing any even slightly negative information. In 2014, Sechin won a lawsuit against Forbes Russia after the magazine included him in a list of the 25 highest-paid executives in Russia and indicated his 2012 income as head of Rosneft to be €50 million ($65 million). Also in 2014, a Moscow district court found that Vedomosti’s then-deputy editor-in-chief Kirill Kharatyan discredited Sechin’s honor, dignity, and business reputation in an editorial in which he said that “the president [of Rosneft] Sechin has not lost the ability and possibility to influence major government decisions” and referred to Sechin’s exemption from responsibility “for any of his actions to anyone, except for the Kremlin patron.” The court pointed to the defamatory nature of these statements. The article was later removed from the publication’s website.

In 2016, the same court ordered Vedomosti to remove another article from its website—this time detailing the construction of Sechin’s house. The newspaper estimated the cost of a three-hectare land plot in one of the most expensive districts of the Moscow region to be at $60 million. Despite the newspaper’s argument that information about the construction of a super-expensive house by the head of a state-owned company was of public interest, the court disagreed and found that the article violated Sechin’s privacy.

In the meantime, Rosneft began to file libel lawsuits using a new approach. The plaintiff not only demanded that the negative information about the company published by the media be recognized as false and badly affecting its business reputation, but also asked for damage payments. In a 2016 case against RBC, Rosneft demanded 3 billion rubles ($42 million) in damages for an article citing sources about Sechin’s request for government protection against BP. The court recovered only 390,000 rubles ($6,500), and the case ended in an amicable agreement, but Rosneft developed a taste for using monetary compensation as a perfect legal tool to silence journalists.

In 2020, Rosneft sharply raised the stakes, demanding 43 billion rubles ($600 million) from RBC for a “provocative” headline in a report on the transfer of the company’s Venezuelan assets. It also alleged that the article “provoked a wave of disinformation” in the media. The whopping $600 million in damages was calculated as the difference between Rosneft’s and other energy companies’ share price movements on the day the article was published. After the first court hearing, Rosneft voluntarily dropped the suit.

From March to June of 2021, Rosneft has already filed eight lawsuits against the media demanding the recovery of hundreds of millions of rubles (millions of U.S. dollars).

 

“Socially harmful” journalism?  

The problems facing journalists in Russia are clearly not limited to reporting on Sechin or Rosneft. The Glasnost Defense Foundation estimates that 140 instances of criminal libel cases or threats to file criminal complaints against journalists and bloggers were registered between 2004 and 2020—the majority of them initiated by high-profile officials and businessmen. Among them is another prominent litigator—the head of Roscosmos, Dmitry Rogozin.

Last September, Rogozin filed a civil libel lawsuit to protect his honor and dignity against three media outlets that criticized his work. In December 2020, a Moscow district court upheld his claim in part, demanding that the relevant articles be removed from these publications’ websites and the plaintiff be awarded 70,000 rubles ($1000) in damages instead of the requested 300,000 ($4,000).

Part of this case was against Argumenty Nedeli and its journalist Vladimir Leonov, who penned a 1600-word article on Rogozin’s work following the latter’s recent self-praising interview. The Roscosmos head was indignant about just one small phrase—“for two years now, Rogozin has been behaving bizarrely at Roscosmos”—and demanded that the entire piece be removed from the website. A Moscow district court supported his claim. Its entire justification in the Argumenty Nedeli part of the case boiled down to the following: the article’s assertion “contains ... a hidden statement that ... the behavior of Dmitry Rogozin as the head of the state corporation Roscosmos was wrong.” The statement was negative yet clearly harmless in nature and occupied just 0.5 percent of the text, and still the court ordered the publisher to delete the entire piece. According to the court, the implication of “wrong-doing” tarnished the plaintiff’s honor and dignity.

The irony is that the article in question listed specific examples of those bizarre decisions, but the plaintiff did not argue with those. It is also noteworthy how the court determined the extent of social harm allegedly caused by the journalistic work—treating what it saw as unfounded criticism of the plaintiff harsher since Rogozin is a public figure. This fundamentally contradicts both the European and American approaches to criticizing public figures. 

Back in 1964, the U.S. Supreme Court in New York Times Co. v. Sullivan established that in the case of criticism of public figures, even the presence of false information in criticism is not enough to hold the defendant liable for defamation. It must be proven that a journalist deliberately disseminated a false statement. The European Court of Human Rights has repeatedly pointed out that politicians should tolerate criticism, and that the defamation threshold for criticism of public figures must be higher than it is for ordinary people. 

The Rogozin case has not yet been considered in appeal, but, unfortunately, my own experience and statistics suggest that Russian journalists can hardly hope to win a case in an appellate court. There is also little doubt that the government will continue to exert excessive pressure on journalists throughout the country.

 

* Igor Slabykh is a lawyer and manager with eighteen years of experience in Russia and the U.S.; he holds a law degree from the Moscow State Open University and an LLM from the George Washington University Law School. 

Russia under Putin

Our newsletter delivers a digest of analytical articles and op-eds published on our website, along with the latest updates on the IMR activities on a monthly basis.