Vladimir Putin, Alexei Navalny, and journalism’s power to drive protest

Last August, Alexei Navalny—the Russian opposition leader and scourge of Vladimir Putin—was poisoned, and fell into a coma. Authorities initially refused to let Navalny leave the country for treatment—in order to hide evidence, his supporters surmised—but friends eventually managed to get him to Germany, where he stayed for months to convalesce. Recently, he made an announcement: he was coming home. A little more than a week ago, he boarded a flight for Moscow with a bevy of eager journalists and a few bemused onlookers. The plane was scheduled to land at Vnukovo airport, where a crowd of Navalny’s supporters and yet more journalists had gathered. But at the last minute, Russian officials rerouted the flight to the nearby Sheremetyevo airport, blaming weather conditions for the switch. (“Obviously,” Anton Troianovski, Moscow correspondent for the Times, said, “no one believes that.”) Upon landing, Navalny was able to briefly address the press and the millions of people watching him online, until police officers showed up and arrested him. Officially, his stay in Germany had violated the terms of a six-year-old parole agreement.

Before Navalny was incarcerated, he was able to record a video message urging opponents of Putin’s rule to take to the streets in protest. On Saturday, they did just that—turning out in huge numbers, across Russia, for what would prove to be the country’s biggest day of demonstrations in at least four years. In Moscow, some protesters threw snow at police—a daring act, videos of which blanketed social media and topped news bulletins around the world. “If there was one incident that suggested the significance of Saturday’s protests, it was probably the footage of the riot police in Moscow looking lost and disoriented as a crowd blitzed them with snowballs,” Alexey Kovalev, an editor at Meduza, an independent newsroom based in neighboring Latvia, wrote in an op-ed for the Times. “These protests, summoned by an imprisoned opposition leader and undertaken against the government’s warnings, are a significant development. After years of relative calm, Russia is restive once more.” Nationwide, police arrested nearly four thousand people.

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Journalists were among those detained. Officials had warned reporters, outlets, and social-media platforms, including TikTok, not to participate in or advertise the protests; according to the Committee Protect Journalists, a freelance journalist named Anastasia Lotaryova was summoned to a police precinct in Moscow and given what officers called a “prophylactic talk.” Voice of America put the number of reporters seized by police at several dozen; among them was Roman Anin, the editor of a prominent investigative outlet called iStories. (He was subsequently released.) The radio station Ekho Moskvy reported that at least four journalists in Moscow sustained injuries in the course of their reporting.

Russia has long had a restrictive climate for press freedom. As I wrote last summer, that climate bears directly on Navalny—in the sense that the speech rights of dissidents and journalists cannot be separated, but also because Navalny is himself a journalist. Sort of. Since his arrival on the national political scene, Navalny has used reporting to expose corruption and cronyism at the highest levels of the Russian state and rally opposition to Putin, first as a blogger, then via the Anti-Corruption Foundation—an organization, founded by Navalny, that publishes slick, highly-detailed video investigations of the affairs of senior figures, including, in 2017, Dmitry Medvedev, who was then the prime minister. As Anin told the Organized Crime and Corruption Reporting Project last year, Navalny “doesn’t follow journalistic standards” of balance, but has nonetheless created “probably the most effective investigative media outlet in the country.”

Navalny’s journalism helped build momentum for Saturday’s protests weeks before they began. Around Christmas, he cooperated with Bellingcat, The Insider, Der Spiegel, and CNN to release a bombshell report showing that he was being trailed by a team of operatives working for Russia’s secret police. Posing as a senior security official, he spoke by phone with one of the operatives, a chemical-weapons expert named Konstantin Kudryavtsev, and induced him to inadvertently confess the details of Navalny’s poisoning, and say plainly that it had been a failed assassination attempt. (Bellingcat observed the call, which Navalny recorded and published online, and confirmed details of Kudryavtsev’s account by cross-referencing them with “objective data.”) Then, last week, Navalny’s YouTube channel posted a highly-produced, two-hour-long documentary—complete with 3D graphics—leveling a series of extraordinary allegations about an opulent Black Sea palace that Putin had supposedly financed via a “slush fund.” The video has since been viewed nearly a hundred million times, an astronomical figure even by Navalny’s viral standards. Yesterday, Putin took the unusual step of personally responding to the film when asked about it by a college student; he denied that he or his family own the palace (a claim that Navalny did not technically make) and accused Navalny of attempting to “brainwash our citizens.”

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Navalny will spend at least thirty days in jail, and his sentence is likely to be extended at a court hearing in early February. But Russian authorities do not only have him to worry about—as Bloomberg and others have reported recently, a new generation of “guerilla media” outlets including iStories and Proekt, an independent site founded by Roman Badanin, have been reporting aggressively on previously “taboo” topics, including Putin’s private life. The growing ambition of these newsrooms reflects a broader truth—that Putin’s grip on Russia’s information sphere is weakening. Kovalev, of Meduza, has observed that ten times as many people watched footage of Saturday’s protests on TV Rain, an independent channel, as on RT, which Putin controls. The student who’d asked Putin about the palace story had a comment, too: that people of his generation don’t watch TV, and instead get their news online. Polling data backs that up. Changing news consumption habits pose a long-term problem for Putin. In the short term, the protests are set to continue.

Below, more on Russia:

  • President Navalny?: In recent days, various Russia-watchers have noted that Navalny is a complicated figure: his politics aren’t uniformly liberal, and he has a history of bigoted and nationalistic views. Masha Gessen, of The New Yorker, writes that in years’ past, much of Russia’s intelligentsia has been wary of Navalny, but that his post-poisoning return to Russia “has shown that the alternative to Putin is courage, integrity, and love.” Gessen predicts that either Navalny or his wife will “almost certainly” be Russia’s next leader.
  • A deportation: On Thursday, Russian police ordered Vladlen Los, a lawyer for Navalny’s Anti-Corruption Foundation who is a citizen of neighboring Belarus, to leave Russia within four days; a day later, Los was arrested and jailed for disobeying the order. On Sunday, police put a bag over Los’s head and drove him to the Belarusian border. He is now free in Belarus, but he has been banned from returning to Russia for five years. Meduza has more details.
  • Repeated arrests: Last week, police in the Russian city of Khabarovsk arrested Dmitry Timoshenko—a journalist for a regional newspaper who was covering a wave of local protests that preceded Saturday’s demonstrations—for the third time in quick succession. According to the Committee to Protect Journalists, officers physically assaulted Timoshenko, who has also been ordered to pay a fine.
  • Foreign agents: Earlier this month, Russia’s media regulator issued notices alleging that four media outlets affiliated with Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty, an editorially-independent broadcaster funded by the US government, have violated Russian law by failing to label themselves as agents of a foreign regime. The outlets are now likely to face fines totaling hundreds of thousands of dollars. Last week, a bipartisan group of US lawmakers called on President Biden to respond with new sanctions if Russian officials demand pay.


Other notable stories: 

  • Last night, the House of Representatives formally transferred its article of impeachment against President Trump to the Senate. Two weeks from now, Trump will stand trial for inciting the January 6 insurrection at the Capitol. Slate’s Aymann Ismail asked six journalists to reflect on what it was like to cover the Trump era, and on any regrets that they have. “I don’t see the last four years as this journalistic anomaly that will never be replicated again,” Astead W. Herndon, a political reporter at the Times, replied. “I think that it is one piece of what is a larger conflict in America.”
  • Politico’s Christopher Cadelago and Natasha Korecki report on the efforts of right-wing outlets—including Sinclair, Newsmax, and Breitbart—to gain access to the White House briefing room, and how the Biden administration plans to handle their requests. “White House officials stressed that they won’t take steps to banish pro-Trump voices from the White House,” Cadelago and Korecki write—though T.J. Ducklo, a deputy White House press secretary, stressed that “organizations or individuals who traffic in conspiracy theories, propaganda and lies to spread disinformation will not be tolerated.”
  • Last year, David Pecker retired as chairman and CEO of American Media Inc. when a medical-products manufacturer acquired the company and rebranded it as A360 Media. But according to the Daily Beast’s Lloyd Grove, Pecker is still “calling the shots” at A360 titles, including the National Enquirer. A source told Grove that Pecker is “behind the curtain pulling the strings just like the Wizard of Oz.” (Dan Dolan, the editor of the Enquirer, denies this.) For more on the Enquirer, read Simon van Zuylen-Wood in CJR.
  • Also for CJR, Maggie Jones Patterson, a journalism professor at Duquesne University, shares her research on differences in crime coverage, including the practice of naming suspects, in the US and Europe. “In the Netherlands, Sweden, and Germany, citizens and journalists alike largely trust their governments, the police, and the criminal justice process,” Patterson writes. “There is a greater emphasis on avoiding trials-by-media.”
  • Yesterday, McClatchy fired Christina Lords, the editor of the Idaho Statesman. Lords had recently tweeted her frustration at being unable to provide a new employee with access to Microsoft Excel, and appealed to readers to support the paper; the Statesman’s union believes that Lords was fired over the tweet, but said that executives have “refused to answer basic questions” about the decision. Margaret Carmel has more for BoiseDev.
  • S. Mitra Kalita, a former CNN executive, and Sara Lomax-Reese, the CEO of WURD Radio, in Philadelphia, are launching “URL Media,” a newsletter that will bring local reporting on communities of color to a national audience. According to Axios’s Russell Contreras, URL—which stands for “Uplift, Respect, and Love”—already has partnerships with outlets including the Haitian Times, in New York, and Scalawag, in North Carolina.
  • Ben Strauss, of the Post, profiles Bomani Jones, of ESPN. Last summer, after police killed George Floyd, Jones’s commentary on race was in demand, and his bosses called to thank him for his work. But sports now dominate once again, and Jones is uncertain about the future. The summer didn’t “usher in some new revolution” at ESPN, Jones told Strauss, “as much as it’s going to prove to be a moment in time.”
  • On Sunday, BuzzFeed’s Rachel Zarrell, a past Forbes “30 under 30” honoree, revealed that Forbes invited seventy-five of her peers to travel to Bermuda in March, for a month-long “residency.” Forbes pledged to implement “state-of-the-art” COVID protocols to make the trip possible, but after Zarrell and others criticized the plan on public-health grounds, the company pulled the plug. The Guardian’s Archie Bland has more.
  • And Sarah Huckabee Sanders, Trump’s second White House press secretary, is now running to be governor of Arkansas. In her (long-expected) campaign announcement, she bragged that she “took on the media, the radical left, and their cancel culture,” and won. (She also lied a lot.) Sanders was most recently a paid contributor on Fox News, but the network has now severed their relationship.

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Jon Allsop is a freelance journalist. He writes CJR’s newsletter The Media Today. Find him on Twitter @Jon_Allsop.