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The Real Russia. Today. Investigating the CAR journalist murders, how Russia restricts protests, and Oyub Titiev's year in kangaroo court

Meduza

Thursday, January 10, 2019

This day in history (seven years ago): On January 10, 2012, the former Soviet intelligence officer Gevork Vartanian died in Moscow at the age of 87. Vartanian was credited with thwarting “Operation Long Jump” — an alleged plot by Adolf Hitler to assassinate Stalin, Churchill, and Roosevelt at the Tehran conference in 1943.
  • Russia might open a military base in the Central African Republic
  • Investigators find evidence tying last July's murder of three Russian journalists in Africa to ‘Putin's chef’
  • A new report reveals the hidden mechanisms authorities use to restrict protests in Russia
  • Five facts about the case against a key human rights activist in Chechnya
  • Meduza speaks to one of the journalists who believes the Magnitogorsk apartment building collapse was terrorism
  • Ilya Klishin thinks a ‘media vacuum’ is fueling Russian's fake news industry
  • St. Petersburg's leading investigative news outlet has a new owner
  • Russia’s censorship agency has accused the BBC of posting materials that ‘broadcast terrorist ideologies’
  • Freed ‘Anonymous International” hacktivist grants first TV interview, fingers two former FSB agents charged with treason
  • Kaspersky Lab reportedly helped the NSA catch an alleged data thief
  • St. Isaac’s Cathedral wasn’t transferred to the Orthodox Church, after all

Russia's African expansion? 🌍

A military cooperation agreement between Russia and the Central African Republic signed last August would allow Moscow to open an official base, CAR Defense Minister Marie-Noëlle Koyara told the news agency RIA Novosti in a new interview. The Berengo Palace, where Russian military instructors are currenting training local troops, does not qualify as a military base, Koyara argued, even though “people have already started seeing it as exactly this.”

How they were killed in CAR 🕵️‍♂️

Mikhail Khodorkovsky’s investigative project Dossier Center has reportedly completed a five-month study of the circumstances surrounding the murder of three Russian journalists in the Central African Republic, concluding that a local gendarme is likely involved in the triple homicide. The suspect allegedly followed the journalists, and remained in constant contact with their driver and with someone who works at one of Evgeny Prigozhin’s companies.

👮 The gendarme

Journalist Orkhan Dzhemal, documentary filmmaker Alexander Rastorguyev, and cameraman Kirill Radchenko were murdered in the Central African Republic on July 30, 2018, while collecting footage of mercenaries from the Russian private military company “Wagner.” The PMC is reportedly tied to Evgeny Prigozhin, a catering mogul with close connections to Vladimir Putin. Sources in Khodorkovsk’s now dissolved Investigations Management Center (which organized the documentary expedition) previously told the television network Dozhd that a report about Russian mercenaries in CAR would be one part of a documentary film.

On the evening of July 30, shortly before they were killed, Dzhemal, Rastorguyev, and Radchenko passed through Sibut. Dossier Center managed to speak to two Central African Armed Forces soldiers stationed at the checkpoint on the city’s outskirts. They claimed that a vehicle carrying three armed white men and two Central Africans, including gendarme Emmanuel Touaguende Kotofio, came through the checkpoint 20 minutes before the three journalists’ jeep. The first car allegedly asked the soldiers to let the jeep through, saying “they’re friendlies.” The Russian journalists reportedly left Sibut at 7 p.m., local time, and were killed an hour later.

Call records obtained by Dossier Center indicate that Kotofio was never far from the three journalists, from the moment they landed at Bangui M'Poko International Airport to their drive through Sibut. All this time, he was in constant contact with the journalists’ driver, Bienvenu Duvokamoy. In just three days, the two spoke on the phone at least 47 times. A source also told Dossier Center that Duvokamoy is himself a former gendarme. The two men also switched to new phone lines during their communications, which Dossier Center investigations believe suggests the organization of a special operation.

On the evening of July 30, moreover, the cell towers for both mobile phone operators in the area where the murders took place suddenly went offline, terminating the call records immediately before the killings.

👨‍🏫 The instructor

Dossier Center also used phone records to tie Kotofio to multiple Russians working in the Central African Republic. Between July and August 2018, he made 98 calls to Alexander Sotov, who is believed to work for a business tied to Evgeny Prigozhin. In CAR, Sotov is officially employed as an “instructor in surveillance, recruitment, and covert intelligence work” for the company “M-Finance,” based on the company’s internal documents. Dossier Center says this business is connected to Prigozhin through its former CEO, Evgeny Khodotov, who owned Lobaye Invest, which the French media says is a subsidiary that represents the interests of Prigozhin’s company “M-Invest.”

According to Dossier Center’s investigation, Sotov’s official supervisor is Valery Zakharov, a national security adviser to CAR President Faustin-Archange Touadéra. The website Fontanka previously reported that Zakharov has “cooperated with security services” working for Prigozhin. Call records show that Sotov and Zakharov spoke more than 100 times between July and August last year. Dossier Center says Sotov also used a phony American passport (issued to someone named Barret Travis Hammond) to register his local cell phone.

In M-Finance’s payroll records, Sotov’s personal identification number is listed in the same format that journalists have repeatedly attributed to mercenaries working with the “Wagner” private military company.

😶 The fixer

Dossier Center argues that the evidence leads back to Moscow, specifically to a man named Kirill Romanovsky, who works as a special correspondent for Prigozhin’s Federal News Agency. Shortly after the murders, Meduza learned that Romanovsky was the one who found the three journalists’ fixer in CAR: a man named “Martin” with supposed ties to the United Nations. It was “Martin” who recommended the driver who was apparently working with the local gendarmes.

U.N. officials say they were never in contact with the three killed journalists, and Dossier Center speculates that “Martin” is actually an alias. For example, his jeep’s license plate was registered to “Erika Mustermann” (the German equivalent of Jane Doe). His role as a fixer is also in doubt, given that he spent all of July telling the three journalists that he was in Bambari organizing an expedition to film CAR’s gold mines, while phone records show that he was actually 235 miles southwest in Bangui.

When Romanovsky shared the fixer's contact information, he suggested that written correspondence would be better than phone calls. Neither Romanovsky nor Sotov responded to Dossier Center’s new findings, when contacted by Dozhd.

Freedom of assembly à la Russe 📣

Article 31 of the Russian Constitution states that citizens of the Russian Federation “shall have the right to assemble peacefully.” However, when protests are not approved by local authorities, those who join them can face arrest, professional consequences, and even criminal charges. The anti-corruption protests that swept Russia on March 26 and June 12, 2017, as well as the Voters’ Boycott marches of January 28, 2018, largely fell into this category of “unsanctioned” demonstrations, and hundreds of people were detained by police during each event.

According to the media project OVD-Info, which reports on and combats political persecution in Russia, the process by which local governments approve or reject public gatherings remained until very recently an almost total secret—one that allowed authorities to maintain control over “how a public event proceeds, how the media covers different gatherings, and sometimes even the fates of those who participate in protests.” Natalya Smirnova and Denis Shedov of OVD-Info recently released a 75-page investigative report in Russian detailing the inconsistent norms and frequent pitfalls that await protest organizers at every stage of that process. Meduza's news editor, Hilah Kohen, read the report so you don’t have to.

Oyub Titiev's most terrible year ⚖️

Oyub Titiev led the Chechen branch of Memorial, a Russian organization that records human rights violations of the Soviet era and advocates for civil rights in the present day. On January 9, 2018, Titiev was arrested in Chechnya. Local police officers announced that they found nearly 200 grams of marijuana in his car. Titiev was charged with drug possession, and because of the unusually large volume he allegedly kept, he may face up to ten years in prison. The human rights advocate himself maintains that the marijuana was planted in his car after he was threatened by Chechen authorities. Titiev has spent the entire past year in a pretrial detention center, and his trial is currently ongoing. Meduza explains the central developments that have shaped his case.

Don't tell him it's a conspiracy theory 📰

Before dawn on December 31, a 10-story apartment building in the city of Magnitogorsk suddenly collapsed. The authorities say it was a gas leak that killed 39 people. A day after the tragedy, on the evening of January 1, a local minibus caught fire and exploded, claiming the lives of its three passengers. Almost immediately, two news outlets — Znak.com and the Chelyabinsk news website 74.ru — published stories claiming that the apartment explosion had been a terrorist attack and the minibus incident was a firefight between police and the supposed bombers. That same night, when police evacuated a nearby apartment building, Znak.com reported that the authorities were searching for a fourth suspect. Russia’s law enforcement agencies have not verified these reports, and officials have repeatedly stated that no bomb fragments were discovered at the collapsed apartment building. Meduza special correspondent Ilya Zhegulev spoke to Znak.com deputy chief editor Dmitry Kolezev to discuss sources, trust, and journalistic ethics.

Here's what we asked Kolezev: When did he first hear that it might have been terrorism? Why did Znak.com believe its sources without further verification? Does he really believe a homeless man accidentally defused a bomb? What are the ethical standards for reporting rumors about terrorism? What's strange about the police response to the Magnitogorsk tragedy? What do you make of fellow journalists' skepticism about this terrorism theory? Why have the authorities remained silent, if this was really terrorism?

📡 Klishin blames it all on the ‘media vacuum’

In an op-ed for Vedomosti, columnist and RTVI digital director Ilya Klishin argues that a “media vacuum” is growing in the space between Russia’s state-owned and independent journalism, creating a force outside anyone’s control. Klishin says independent journalists are increasingly caught between “external self-censorship” (fear of government penalties) and “internal self-censorship” (the limits imposed by ethics, which only Znak.com was willing to overlook in the recent Magnitogorsk tragedy).

This situation cultivates the popular perception that state journalists don’t report the truth “because they don’t want to,” while independent journalists don’t report the truth “because they can’t.” As a result, Klishin says, audiences “subconsciously” assume that the news media isn’t reporting the full story, creating a “media vacuum” that is filled with rumors and fake news. This false information circulates more freely now than before, Klishin says, thanks to social media, which gives it the polish of a professional news outlet and a potential revenue stream that attracts professionals in fakery.

Say hello to the new boss 👋

Viktor Shkulev has acquired a controlling stake in Azhur-Media, which publishes Fontanka, the biggest news outlet in St. Petersburg. The president of the Russian-American company Hearst Shkulev Publishing (which owns Russian-language versions of the magazines Elle, Maxim, and Psychologies), Shkulev also owns the regional publications: E1 in Yekaterinburg, 74.ru in Chelyabinsk, and NGS in Novosibirsk.

Asked by RTVI if Fontanka will still publish investigative reports about the “Wagner” private military company and Evgeny Prigozhin, Shkulev said it will be up to chief editor Alexander Gorshkov. Shkulev also denies that his acquisition of Fontanka has anything to do with Alexander Beglov’s recent appointment as acting governor of St. Petersburg or his upcoming election bid. Gorshkov confirmed to RTVI that his outlet’s editorial policies will remain unchanged “for the foreseeable future.”

Former Fontanka reporter Denis Korotkov, meanwhile, told RTVI that he suspects his past reporting about the Wagner PMC must have weighed on the decision to sell to Shkulev.

A source close to Fontanka told RTVI that rumors are circulating at the website that Evgeny Prigozhin could be behind the sale to Shkulev. The source himself, however, says he does not believe these rumors, arguing that Shkulev would risk losing his American partners if he agreed to a “toxic” deal with Prigozhin.

  • From 2013 to late 2015, the Swedish company Bonnier Group owned a controlling interest in Azhur-Media. The collaboration ended when Russia enacted a law limiting foreign ownership in news publications to 20 percent. Alexander Gorshkov, Andrey Konstantinov, Evgeny Vyshenkov, and Andrey Potapenko subsequently bought 51 percent of Fontanka themselves.

Bad news for the Beeb

Roskomnadzor, the Russian government agency responsible for monitoring mass media and communications, has announced that it found materials “that broadcast the ideological positions of international terrorist organizations” on the website of the BBC’s Russian Service.

The regulatory body cited a quote from a speech given by Abu Bakr Al-Baghdadi, an Islamic State leader, as an example of the materials under scrutiny.

  • Roskomnadzor began investigating the BBC’s website and the BBC World News television channel, which is available on Russian territory, in late December. The agency explicitly stated that the investigation was initiated in response to another investigation by the British agency Ofcom. Ofcom had accused the Russian state-owned television channel RT of violating British regulations.

An interview with the freed hacktivist who wasn't 👾

After going free on early parole, “Anonymous International” hacktivist Konstantin Teplaykov granted an interview to the television network Dozhd, claiming that his group was in fact under the control of the Federal Security Service’s Information Security Center. Through “Anonymous International,” FSB agents were able to leak or block whatever information they wished, Teplaykov says, specifically naming Sergey Mikhailov and Dmitry Dokuchaev (two former FSB agents currently charged with treason, reportedly for sharing data about Russian hackers with foreign intelligence agencies). In the interview, he insists that there weren’t actually any traditional “hackers” in the group, referring to himself as a “programmer.”

Want to know more about the allegations against Mikhailov and Dokuchaev? Meduza wrote about the story as reported by Kommersant in October. Read our summary here.

Kaspersky Lab to the rescue 🖥️

Convinced that Kaspersky Lab is an appendage of Russia’s intelligence community? Politico has a new story possibly flipping that narrative on its head, citing sources who claim the Russian company turned over to the NSA a former contractor who allegedly stole massive amounts of classified data. Naturally, the story is more complicated than it seems at first glance, and Kaspersky’s strained relationship with the United States remains a headache for everyone involved. Read Kim Zetter’s story here.

Controversy expired

St. Isaac’s Cathedral, a major historic landmark in St. Petersburg, was scheduled in a controversial move to lose its status as a public museum and become an active institution of the Russian Orthodox Church. However, an order composed by St. Petersburg’s Committee on Property Relations that defined key protocols for the transfer has expired, Interfax reported.

The document, which is dated December 30, 2016, states that an agreement regarding the transfer of the museum’s collections to a status of use without pay had to be reached within 24 months, or by the end of December 2018.

The Committee on Property Relations announced that a new order could be issued should the Orthodox Church submit a new request for the transfer of the cathedral. No such request has been submitted at the time of this writing.

For its part, the Russian Orthodox Church had announced that the order in question would expire on January 30. The Church did not state whether it would attempt to submit another request to receive control of the cathedral.

  • In December 2016, St. Petersburg’s Committee on Property Relations ordered the transfer of St. Isaac’s Cathedral to the Russian Orthodox Church for a duration of 49 years. Georgy Poltavchenko, the former governor of St. Petersburg, reassured city residents that the cathedral would retain its function as a museum even after its transfer to the Church.
  • Members of Russia’s museum industry opposed the transfer, and St. Petersburg residents organized a number of protest marches in resistance to it. The Committee’s decision was also challenged in court.

Yours, Meduza