The Media Today

The poisoning of Alexei Navalny is a press freedom story

August 25, 2020

Last Thursday, Alexei Navalny drank a cup of tea in a Russian airport, which is a risky thing to do when you’re a prominent opponent of the country’s president, Vladimir Putin. Navalny, who had been in Siberia working with opposition candidates, fell ill shortly after boarding a flight back to Moscow, necessitating an emergency landing. The news quickly got out, and observers worldwide feared that Navalny had met the same fate as many other critics of Putin: poison. Forty-four hours later, Navalny was on a plane again, in a coma this time, and bound not for Moscow but for Germany, where he was to receive treatment. Navalny’s Russian doctors had initially insisted that he wasn’t well enough to make the trip—a bid, many observers suspected, to buy enough time for the poison in his system to become undetectable. If it was a ploy, it didn’t work. Yesterday, German physicians suggested that Navalny was poisoned, possibly by a nerve agent. His life is not currently thought to be at risk, but he may not make a full recovery, either.

The physicians’ conclusion flatly contradicted reports that have circulated in Russian state and pro-government media since Navalny was taken ill. (A sample narrative: Navalny had a hangover and poisoned himself trying to cure it.) We don’t yet know, of course, the exact details of what did happen—but we do know that Russian dissidents and exiles have suffered similar attacks with a frequency that belies coincidence. Tea has been involved more than once: cups containing it poisoned the investigative journalist Anna Politkovskaya, in 2004 (she recovered, only to be gunned down in 2006), and the former Russian agent Alexander Litvinenko, who died in London in 2006. British officials concluded that Putin probably ordered Litvinenko’s assassination himself, and they pointed the finger at the Russian state again in 2018, after another ex-agent, Sergei Skripal, and his daughter were poisoned in the UK. The Skripals survived, as did Vladimir Kara-Murza, an opposition activist who believes that he has been poisoned twice, in 2015 and 2017, and Pyotr Verzilov, a member of the dissident group Pussy Riot who believes that he was poisoned in 2018. Navalny himself may already have been poisoned last year, during a spell in prison. Russian officials pinned his condition then on “allergies.”

ICYMI: Journalism’s Gates keepers

As the poisonings indicate, Russia is a harsh climate for speech that deviates from the official line, including independent journalism. (Russia ranks 149th out of 180 countries and territories on Reporters Without Borders’s 2020 World Press Freedom Index.) In June 2019, Ivan Golunov, an investigative reporter with the news site Meduza, was arrested on drug charges that were widely decried as bogus, and eventually dropped. More recently, Russian authorities have variously fined, attacked, and arrested reporters covering the spread of COVID-19 in the country and a constitutional referendum that paved the way for Putin to remain in power until 2036. Last month, a court convicted the journalist Svetlana Prokopyeva on terror-related charges linked to remarks she made about an anarchist bombing on secret-police property. (She was spared jail time, but was fined and had electronics confiscated.) The next day, the secret police detained Ivan Safronov, a former military correspondent who recently took a job advising Russia’s space agency, on treason charges linked to his past reporting. Many journalists came out to protest his treatment. At least 18 of them were arrested for doing so.

On Friday, Ilya Lozovsky wrote, for the Organized Crime and Corruption Reporting Project, that Navalny’s “most enduring legacy” may not be as an electoral candidate, but rather as “the producer of an unorthodox, but highly effective, brand of investigative journalism.” Through his Anti-Corruption Foundation, Navalny has published slick, meticulous videos documenting the corruption and extravagant wealth of senior politicians—including Putin—and their families. The videos “don’t follow journalistic standards and never try to listen to the other side,” Roman Anin, editor of the investigative outlet IStories, told Lozovsky. Still, Anin said, Navalny has created “probably the most effective investigative media outlet in the country. The number of stories they publish, the creative way they find the stories and deliver them to their audience, is something we should learn from.”

Navalny’s relationship with Russia’s independent media is complicated. A few weeks prior to his poisoning, Meduza’s Svetlana Reyter reported that relations, arguably, “have never been more strained.” Reporters have accused Navalny of unbecoming conduct, and of inaccuracies in his investigative work. Navalny, in turn, has attacked multiple outlets for not being oppositional enough to Putin, and for what he perceives as insufficient coverage of his foundation’s findings. Sometimes, he’s attacked reporters in highly personal terms—he recently told Golunov, of Meduza, that reading his work is like “watching a cat get chainsawed.”

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In the eyes of the Russian state, though, Navalny’s speech and that of reporters such as Golunov adds up to roughly the same thing: intolerable dissent. In recent months, the brutal state response to protests in the US has reminded American reporters and their readers that while protesters and the press serve different functions, they enjoy broadly the same category of speech rights, and suffer in similar ways when those get trampled. The same is true internationally, and is felt most painfully in countries, like Russia, where speech rights are highly precarious. Whether or not you class Navalny as a journalist—and it’s an open question—his poisoning looks, in a sense, like yet another assault on press freedom.

Below, more on Navalny, Russia, and international press freedom:

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ICYMI: Telling stories about crime is hard. That’s no excuse for not doing better.

Update: This post has been updated to clarify that Ivan Golunov was arrested in June 2019, and to note that the Justice Department has denied Brian Stelter’s reporting about William Barr.

Jon Allsop is a freelance journalist whose work has appeared in the New York Review of Books, Foreign Policy, and The Nation, among other outlets. He writes CJR’s newsletter The Media Today. Find him on Twitter @Jon_Allsop.