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Russian Authorities Target New RFE/RL Volga-Ural Region Website

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WASHINGTON -- Freelance journalists working for RFE/RL’s Tatar-Bashkir Service and its new Russian-language idel.realii website have been subjected to an ongoing campaign of harassment ever since the site was launched in late 2016. Journalists have been unable to gain accreditation, prevented from covering official events and breaking news stories, and have been subjected to smear campaigns in pro-government media outlets. Along with several of its RFE/RL Russian-language counterparts, the idel.realii site was designated a “foreign agent” media outlet by Russian federal authorities in December 2017.

In Russia’s geopolitically sensitive Volga-Ural region -- a complex crossroad of various ethnicities, religious groups (predominantly Islam and Orthodox Christianity), and economic interests -- Russian federal authorities pursue a "divide and conquer" strategy to maintain authority and influence. The appearance of a new, independent player in the region’s media and public space, devoted to evidence-based reporting on corruption and government accountability, has evoked a harsh response from local and federal authorities who consider idel.realii a threat to Moscow’s continued control of the strategically important region.

  • Access to the idel.realii website was disrupted in September, 2017 by a massive distributed denial of service (DDoS) attack on its servers that was quickly mitigated.
  • In January 2018, idel.realii correspondent Darya Komarova was detained in Cheboksary, Chuvashia region, while covering the “Voters Strike” protest by supporters of opposition leader Alexei Navalny.
  • In May 2018, an article in a local online newspaper in Bashkortostan sought to undermine the journalistic credibility of idel.realii correspondent Artur Asafiev, and, referencing the Kremlin’s December 2017 “foreign agent” designation, cast idel.realii and RFE/RL’s Russian Service as enemies of the Russian state.
  • In June 2018, idel.realii correspondent Vadim Mesheryakov was approached by two strangers claiming to be from the Kazan City Duma, who sought to discover Mesheryakov’s source for an article about the murky purchase of a luxury car by the head of the local mass transit agency -- first offering what amounted to a bribe, but later threatening to destroy Mesheryakov’s journalism career if he did not reveal his source.
  • In August 2018, at least three Kazan-based freelance idel.realii correspondents were targeted in a campaign of harassment by a regional Telegram channel, @babaycalls, which published details from the correspondents’ private lives and called the journalists subversive foreign agents. The correspondents were later followed and harassed by unknown persons.

Local freelancers working for RFE/RL’s Tatar-Bashkir Service face similar pressures.