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Even in Europe, we are not safe A statement from Meduza editor-in-chief Ivan Kolpakov

Source: Meduza
What happened?

The million-dollar reporter How attackers hijacked the phone of Meduza co-founder Galina Timchenko, making her the first Russian journalist to be infected with Pegasus spyware

What happened?

The million-dollar reporter How attackers hijacked the phone of Meduza co-founder Galina Timchenko, making her the first Russian journalist to be infected with Pegasus spyware

Meduza was launched in Riga in 2014. We’ve been working in the European Union for nearly 10 years. During that time, our publication has gone from being a tiny media startup with about 15 employees to being the world’s largest international Russian-language news outlet.

Despite the fact that the Russian government has declared us a “foreign agent” and an “undesirable organization” (this designation means our work is completely illegal; to the Russian authorities, everyone who works at Meduza is a criminal) and completely blocked our site, millions of people in Russia continue to read us. So far, we’ve managed to circumvent both the block and the legal bans, though it’s becoming increasingly difficult to cover events inside Russia.

We’re very grateful to Europe. The hospitality of Latvia, where our editorial office has been located since 2014, is one of the key factors that has allowed Meduza to succeed.

We often say to ourselves and to our employees that Europe provides a sense of total security. But this is only a feeling — an illusion of safety. We have no right to deceive ourselves. In reality, even here, we (and our colleagues from other independent media outlets in exile) are not safe.

1. Political risks

Reflecting on this issue, I’m compelled to refer back to the situation surrounding the Russian news channel TV Rain, which opened an office in Riga soon after February 24 but eventually lost its Latvian broadcast license. Latvian officials found formal grounds for this decision that are unlikely to seem convincing outside the Baltic countries — assuming, of course, that we believe government officials should create favorable conditions for independent media rather than seeking pretexts for shutting them down.

TV Rain is the only independent Russian television channel in existence, and it’s one of the largest and most important opposition media outlets in Russia. Since February 24, the channel has covered Russia’s full-scale invasion of Ukraine thoroughly and objectively. Despite all that, the Latvian authorities concluded that the channel posed a “national security threat.”

The first reason the Latvian government cited in its decision to revoke TV Rain’s license was that the channel failed to start offering Latvian subtitles in time (though its broadcasts are intended primarily for a Russian-speaking audience). The second reason was that one of the channel’s hosts referred to the Russian army as “our army” during a live broadcast (he was subsequently fired). The third was that the channel used a map on which Crimea was marked as Russian territory (the journalists later said that this was done in error). You can read Meduza’s overview of the situation here and our editorial board’s statement here

Is it worth fleeing one government just to end up directly beholden to another? This situation leads to self-censorship and the erosion of professional standards, causing editorial teams in exile to lose their sense of dignity and purpose. Under these circumstances, it becomes impossible to do high-quality and objective journalism.

The conflict surrounding TV Rain, in our view, ended in the worst possible way in Latvia. Both sides should have applied more effort and reached a resolution consistent with democratic values (assuming, once again, that we consider freedom of speech to be a democratic value). Instead, however, the officials who had control over the matter chose to engage in populism.

Ultimately, the exile of TV Rain (which, fortunately, relocated successfully to Amsterdam) bodes poorly for journalists working in Latvia. Based on our experience with Russia, we have the right to assert that there’s no such thing as freedom of speech with exceptions.

2. Murder attempts

Russia has been persecuting and murdering opposition figures for years — both at home and abroad.

Alexander Litvinenko was murdered on British soil, and Russian intelligence operatives tried to kill Sergey Skripal there as well; their cases were some of the most well-known and most widely-covered in the international media. Unfortunately, these kinds of poisoning attacks have continued, and increasingly, the victims are our colleagues.

In October 2022, one of Russia’s most prominent journalists, Meduza correspondent Elena Kostyuchenko, was poisoned in Germany. At the start of the war, she was in Ukraine. For Novaya Gazeta, where she worked at the time, Kostyuchenko wrote several stories that garnered significant attention in Russia and served as important eyewitness accounts of crimes committed by Russian soldiers. Kostyuchenko learned from her own sources and from Novaya Gazeta editor-in-chief Dmitry Muratov that Russian forces had been ordered to kill her if she entered the occupied territories. She ultimately decided to leave Ukraine and not to return to Russia (where she could be sentenced to years in prison).

The Russian authorities forced Novaya Gazeta to delete Kostyuchenko’s reports under the threat of closure. Later, the newspaper effectively stopped operating inside Russia. Since the poisoning incident in Munich, Kostyuchenko has not released any journalistic work, and she continues to suffer from health problems. We don’t know how long it will take her to recover.

In October 2022, in Tbilisi, which is now home to hundreds of independent journalists and political activists from Russia, journalist Irina Babloyan also appears to have been targeted in another poisoning attack. In May 2023, Natalia Arno, the head of the pro-democracy organization Free Russia Foundation who lives in Washington, appears to have been poisoned in Prague. She was also most likely targeted by an attempted poisoning in Vilnius in 2021.

In her own words

‘I want to live — and that’s why I’m writing’ Russian journalist Elena Kostyuchenko recounts surviving an apparent poisoning attempt in Germany

In her own words

‘I want to live — and that’s why I’m writing’ Russian journalist Elena Kostyuchenko recounts surviving an apparent poisoning attempt in Germany

3. Cybersecurity

Hackers have been targeting Meduza’s founders and employees since the very first months of our existence. Their tactics have included DDoS attacks, phishing attempts, sophisticated attacks on our email newsletters, and elaborate attempts to hack our mobile application (which can still circumvent Russia’s censors).

For years, we’ve been receiving password reset notifications, suspicious text messages, threats, insults, and more on a daily basis. I don’t think any of our colleagues from other independent media outlets or opposition politicians will be surprised to learn this.

We’re part of a hunt, and our position is not an enviable one. We are the prey. This is exactly what they’re aiming for: to intimidate us, and to make us spend all of our time thinking about security, rather than work.

Nevertheless, the case of Pegasus, which a European government likely installed on the phone of my friend, Meduza publisher and co-founder Galina Timchenko, is beyond our understanding. According to its developers, this software is used to fight against terrorism; in reality, however, it’s being systematically used against political dissidents and journalists. Often, its targets are subsequently murdered or imprisoned.

If the experts who examined Galina Timchenko’s phone are correct, the situation looks much worse than we imagined. Independent journalists from Russia and other countries may be caught between a rock and a hard place: on one side is their own governments, with their monstrous security apparatuses, and on the other side is the intelligence services of the countries where they’re seeking refuge.

We hope, first of all, that we can identify the people who did this. Second of all, we hope to receive a clear explanation of what happened — from the developers of Pegasus and from whoever initiated this breach.

The surveillance of journalists from independent media outlets using Pegasus has become commonplace. It’s likely that journalists working in exile are targeted even more often than Western reporters and media managers, as they’re seen as inherently suspicious. We know from our colleagues at Access Now that the case of Galina Timchenko isn’t unique. It’s likely that some hacking victims have decided not to speak out publicly for fear of worsening their relations with the governments that they depend on (or believe they depend on). This in itself is telling and deeply concerning.

We are journalists. We believe that information protects. Even if discussing what’s happening is extremely unpleasant and frightening. At this point, it’s hard to fully grasp what this all means and what consequences it might have for us, our loved ones, our employees, and our publication. But we can’t stay silent about it, because we’re not the only ones affected.

* * *

We don’t have a clear understanding of how to proceed in this situation, and we understand how convoluted this story seems. On the one hand, the European authorities have doubts that all of the journalists and activists who have fled Russia are actually journalists and activists and not FSB agents. This idea hardly ever appears in official rhetoric, but it’s a common sentiment behind the scenes. These fears are not unfounded; we share them ourselves. In Georgia and Armenia, which saw the largest waves of Russian emigration, Russian intelligence agents operate freely. What’s to stop them from doing the same in Europe?

On the other hand, it’s quite clear that assassination attempts against journalists and activists, as well as attempts to surveil them, are seen as an independent security threat. Unfortunately, Russia’s capabilities in this regard remain very extensive, as do the capabilities of many other authoritarian countries.

As for physical safety, we can’t protect ourselves completely, and we accept this as a professional risk factor. It wouldn’t be feasible to provide personal security for every well-known Russian journalist; there are just too many of them in Europe. Nonetheless, everything else depends directly on European governments.

The situation with TV Rain in Latvia, followed by the installation of Pegasus on Galina Timchenko’s phone, raises questions about freedom of speech within Europe. Unfortunately, drawing from our highly negative experience in Russia, we must emphasize that this situation concerns not just Meduza but all journalists in the European Union. If governments that profess their commitment to democratic values allow themselves to persecute journalists in exile, what’s to prevent them from treating their own journalists, political activists, and citizens the same way?

You know the answer: nothing.

This is an uncomfortable topic, and it would be easier to brush it aside, but the fact is that too few people in Europe are speaking openly about it. I’m writing this both as a journalist in exile and someone who’s been living in Europe for almost 10 years.

The value of independent journalism seems obvious and self-evident to us. But it’s a fragile institution that must be defended every day. In previous years, this statement was easy to explain using the examples of Poland and Hungary: in both countries, the authorities have managed to turn the media under their control into a propaganda tool, much like Putin did in Russia.

The full-scale war in Ukraine has made the situation significantly worse. Governments often target independent journalism, using arguments about security to justify their actions. During wartime, these arguments become even easier for them to use, and it becomes much easier for us to believe them.

Unfortunately, it’s easy for all of this to happen in democratic countries. Fortunately, we’re not afraid to call things by their names, and we’re not afraid to stand up to pressure — no matter where it’s coming from.

Read this statement in Russian.

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