As a #freelancer on my first trip to the region and without the support of a mother organization, I’d found it almost impossible to know where precaution gave way to paranoia. Before Sochi, and during its first few weeks, the #Canadian #press was filled with increasingly alarming stories. For example, just weeks before the opening ceremonies #CBC Radio’s Metro Morning news show ran a spot called “The Surveillance Games.” Their guest expert was Ron Deibert, Director of the Citizen Lab at the Munk School of Global Affairs at the University of Toronto.
He told the host, “At least two classes of people should be really concerned [about going to Russia]. One would be anyone who is #gay. The other would be #journalists.”
I’m a gay journalist with a very public history of LGBT #activism and I was concerned, not just for myself but also for my sources. According to Deibert, under #SORM (translated literally, it means System for Operative Investigative Activities), all telecommunication companies are required to collect and submit data to the FSB (the Federal Security Service of the Russian Federation, a successor organization to the KGB). Additionally, Deibert reported, former Russian President Dmitry Medvedev had put into place special measures for the Olympics mandating that all communications by foreign athletes, spectators, and press be collected and archived for three years. Journalists, Deibert warned, should worry about the collection and compromise of contacts in their laptops, even after they’d left the country. “Surveillance in Russia is almost total,” Deibert said.
I hear the same phrase weeks later when speaking to Russian American journalist and gay-rights advocate Masha Gessen, but she scoffs when I mention SORM. “SORM is a surveillance mechanism,” she says. “Most people don’t feel the effects from it. But this is different from press freedom.” She urges me to do my research.
Russia’s history of media suppression is well-documented, and reached international notoriety with the 2006 murder in Moscow of journalist Anna Politkovskaya. Although differences in reporting rates, proper investigation, and establishment of motive create some variations in the data, Russia shows up as a #danger spot on every index. The Committee to Protect Journalists documents 11 murders between 2006 and 2013. Reporters Without Borders compiles data on journalists’ deaths where there is a clearly-established link between the victim’s work as a journalist and his or her murder. That organization reports 15 murders in Russia in the same period. Journalists in Russia, a database that collects information on “violent, premature or unexplained deaths of journalists in Russia” from the Glasnost Defense Foundation and the Centre for Journalism in Extreme Situations, includes other media personnel such as editors and camera operators. However, even when looking at journalists alone and excluding cases where the victim is missing or the death is an accident or unconfirmed, there are 22 journalist homicides documented in the same eight years.
Those numbers are alarming enough, but they tell only part of the story. “The number of cases of criminal prosecutions against journalists for libel in Russia is on the increase,” International Federation of Journalists (IFJ) president Jim Boumelha wrote in early 2014. The comment appeared in a press release on the IFJ site stating the organization – along with the European Federation of Journalists (EFJ), and the Russian Federation of Journalists (RFJ) – was calling on the Russian authorities to stop media suppression and persecution. The move came after Ruslan Ovchinnikov, the editor-in-chief of the website SakhalinMedia, was named as an official suspect in a libel claim. At the end of February, 2014, a Moscow court placed opposition leader, activist, and blogger Aleksey A. Navalny under house arrest and added a prohibition on telephone and Internet use for two months. Navalny had used his media reach to draw attention to political corruption and to publicize protests against the Kremlin. Navalny was quoted in the New York Times as saying, “Their only goal is to stop my political activities”.
It’s easy to see how Deibert and others came to their conclusions, particularly in the frenzied days leading up the Sochi Olympics, but there appears to be a big difference in how the national and foreign press are handled. Evgeny Belyakov works in Russia as a fixer for foreign journalists and identifies as part of the LGBT community. “The risks [to journalists] are diverse. If a journalist covers political issues, he or she can face administrative charges, threats, or beatings by the thugs.” However, he says, profile matters. “I think that in Russia the special services #spy only on the most prominent activists.” Gessen, one of the country’s highest-profile journalists, says she’s been threatened but never attacked. “But that’s more for being gay than for being a reporter.”