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Russia Is No Safe Place For Independent Journalists

Violent Attack on Echo of Moscow Reporter Reminder of Vitriol Against Kremlin Critics

An Interior Ministry officer walks inside the office of Russian radio station Ekho Moskvy, after an intruder attacked the station's anchor Tatyana Felgengauer in Moscow, Russia October 23, 2017. REUTERS/Tatyana Makeyeva
Independent journalists have known for some time now that Russia is far from a safe place for them to work. Today’s violent attack on Tatyana Felgengauer, deputy editor of the Russian radio station Echo of Moscow, is a bone-chilling reminder of this.

Felgengauer’s assailant attacked a security guard to get to her before stabbing her in the neck. Media reports say she is in a stable but serious condition. Police have arrested and placed in custody the man identified as carrying out the attack, and the authorities have opened an investigation.

The Russian government has long been cracking down on free expression, adopting strict new laws and forcing formerly independent media outlets to toe a pro-government line, by engineering changes in both ownership and editors.

So it’s important to examine what role Russia’s shrill and unrelenting state media may play in attacks like today’s.

The assault comes two weeks after a state television channel aired a six-minute news segment accusing Echo of Moscow of serving foreign interests, and suggesting it is part of an alleged vast Western conspiracy to meddle in Russia’s presidential election and destabilize the country. The report singled out Felgengauer, featuring several photographs of her. It was one of many lurid news features that demonize government critics, independent groups, and human rights defenders, which Russian state and pro-Kremlin outlets have broadcast in recent years.

It’s not yet known if the assailant was motivated by, or had even seen, rhetoric such as this, but it’s also hard to ignore as part of the context. Last month a veteran Echo of Moscow journalist, Yulia Latynina, said she fled Russia after her car was torched because the state was losing control over violence. “It’s not the Kremlin …directly instigating these kinds of attacks,” she said, but “they are winking at those who want to organize them.”

Journalists are not the only targets of this violence. Other victims include supporters of Alexei Navalny, the anti-corruption activist campaigning for president, participants in a history essay contest organized by a human rights group, organizers of a war photography exhibit, and people who speak their mind about Russia’s actions in Crimea.

A careful and thorough investigation into today’s attack is an essential and non-negotiable step. But Russian authorities should also stop their poisonous vitriol against government critics. Enough is enough.

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