On May 28, Ilya Azar, 35, a Novaya Gazeta journalist and activist, was arrested near the entrance to Moscow’s police department, where he was picketing, holding a small placard. On the placard were the names of a blogger and an activist who were jailed previously in May: both of them were critics of the Russian regime. Azar was charged with violating Russia’s strict protest laws as well as Moscow’s quarantine, despite the fact that journalists are allowed to move around the city. The next day he was sentenced to 15 days in prison. The sentence was later reduced to 10 days, and Azar was released from prison on June 7.
Many European journalists and officials condemned Azar’s imprisonment. Many of us [Disclosure: I am a colleague of Azar’s at Novaya Gazeta] waited for support from the U.S. government, which can often help in getting people released sooner. But these days, even in the U.S., journalists and activists are targets for law enforcement, as unimaginable as that may seem. If America were now to condemn brutality toward reporters in my country, the Kremlin would laugh in its face: “Really, guys?”
This wasn’t Azar’s first picket. He is well-known for organizing political rallies against the government. Last year, thousands attended a demonstration he arranged in support of the release of Ivan Golunov, an investigative reporter arrested on fabricated drug-related charges. After the demonstration, Golunov was released.
Azar’s colleagues believe his arrest was retaliation for the Golunov rally, not for violation of the quarantine. Demonstrations by the political opposition are known to be one of the Kremlin’s main fears. Although Azar’s arrest caused social media unrest, just a handful of colleagues protested near the police department; all of them were quickly detained and later released.
The incident is a reminder of how tricky the lives of journalists are in Russia. It also raises the question of why journalists have to engage so frequently in political protest. If you are unheard, systematically and institutionally, your only choice is to cry out and fight rather than inform and educate.
In 2017, when Azar announced he was going to run for the community council in one of Moscow’s districts, many were surprised: “Why on earth do you think that’s a good idea for you?” Azar grumpily muttered in response that he’d like to try to make a difference in his own district and city. Being a politician, he said, would allow him to solve people’s problems faster than if he was only a reporter.
That same year he was elected to the Khamovniki district council and immediately launched a local digital newspaper called Mokh, where he and his colleagues published stories on local issues. Larger changes were less achievable, given the council’s limited authority. However, Azar became more and more outspoken on political and human rights issues.
Azar was never the type of reporter who mixed journalism and activism. Always stubborn and meticulous, he actually disapproved of journalists who did that. That’s why his embrace of politics and activism was strange to me.
Last week, I finally understood why he had become a politician.
For professionals like him, the devastating attacks on independent journalism in Putin’s Russia are a personal drama. In 2014, Azar lost his job at the country’s largest digital news outlet, Lenta.ru, because of his truthful reporting on the Ukrainian politicians who popularized Ukraine’s anti-corruption movement and pro-Western sentiment, which appealed to the Russian audience. Under pressure from the Kremlin, Lenta.ru’s owner fired the whole team.
At that point it was clear: There are some topics you can’t cover without the risk of losing your job — the personal life of Vladimir Putin, corruption in his inner circle, and questioning the annexation of Crimea.
Government pressure led to self-censorship in almost every newsroom. A lot of decent journalists fled Russia. Many of those who stayed were forced to accept an ever-expanding list of taboo subjects. But Azar was willing to continue the fight — not only as a journalist but also as a politician.
Never in modern Russian history have the media and reporters been so disempowered as they are now. Regardless of the facts you’re able to dig up for a story, the most likely result is zero response from the government, or even worse: Journalists themselves might suffer along with the people they try to help.
Russia has the third highest death toll from the coronavirus pandemic, just behind the U.S. and Brazil. But doctors from Chechnya were recently forced to apologize and retract their statements on the lack of personal protective equipment out of fear of being fired. (Eventually they got fired nevertheless.) Doctors from other Russian provinces who had complained about the inadequate government response mysteriously fell out of hospital windows.
The space for uncensored journalism has shrunk dramatically over the last year and during the pandemic in particular. The main tool used by the government is the so-called Anti Fake-News Law passed last year, which requires, among other things, that journalists rely only on official government data when reporting on public health. Information gathered from anonymous sources and whistle-blowers could now be deemed fake news. There have already been a dozen criminal and administrative cases opened against bloggers, activists, and independent media that published stories on unreported deaths from Covid-19, lack of equipment in Russian hospitals, and poor working conditions for doctors and nurses.
Given this reality, shifting from journalism to activism seems like a logical move to many decent professionals like Azar.
Until there is a free and independent press able to hold the government accountable, the eternal argument about whether journalists should behave like activists isn’t relevant in Russia. Advocacy is the only resort for people striving to make a difference. Once Russia finds freedom again and roots out authoritarianism, reporters might not need activism any longer, just like white cells, after defeating an infection, leave the body.