After poisoning attempt, RSF urges European countries to protect Russian exile journalists
Reporters Without Borders (RSF) sounds the alarm about the threats to the safety of Russian journalists who have fled to Europe after Elena Kostyuchenko, a reporter who covered the Russian invasion of Ukraine for the investigative newspaper Novaya Gazeta, reported that she was the victim of a poisoning attempt in October 2022 in Germany, where she now lives.
“I put off writing this text for a long time. Doing it still feels revolting, frightening, and shameful,” Elena Kostyuchenko wrote in the introduction to her chilling account of the presumed Russian intelligence attempt to poison her, published on 15 August by Meduza, a Russian news site based in Riga, Latvia.
Kostyuchenko covered the first few weeks of the Russian invasion in southern Ukraine, until her Moscow-based newspaper, Novaya Gazeta, suspended publication at the end of March 2022. After warnings of serious threats to her life by the Russian security apparatus, and on the insistence of her editor, 2021 Nobel peace laureate Dmitry Muratov, she abandoned her attempts to enter the city of Mariupol and sought refuge in Germany, where she thought she would be safe. She was never able to return to Russia.
“The persecution of journalists critical of the Kremlin does not stop at Russia's borders. This attempted poisoning of a journalist in the heart of Europe shows the Putin regime’s determination to silence them, even those abroad. We condemn this shocking attack and call on European countries, especially Germany, to take steps to guarantee the safety of independent Russian journalists who have found refuge in their territory.”
After Novaya Gazeta was forced to suspend operations, Kostyuchenko began working for Meduza and, in October 2022, decided to return to Ukraine to resume covering the war. To this end, she went to Munich to apply for a new war reporter’s visa at the Ukrainian consulate there. Before returning to Berlin by train, she ate in a restaurant. It was there that she was probably poisoned.
She began feeling symptoms on the train back to Berlin, symptoms that worsened steadily. She began to sweat heavily, sweat that smelled of rotten fruit. She suffered from headaches and vomiting, and had difficulty concentrating. Her face and body swelled up with retained liquid. After two months of multiple tests, her doctors finally decided that poisoning was the most likely explanation.
An investigation was opened in Germany. Kostyuchenko now manages to work about three hours a day but lacks the strength to go on a reporting trip. “Be more careful than I have been,” she warns her colleagues. “We are not safe, and we will never be safe until the political regime changes in Russia.”
Kostyuchenko’s drama is not unique. A report published on 15 August in The Insider, a Riga-based Russian investigative website, lists prominent members of the Russian diaspora who have had similar experiences. They include Irina Babloyan, a former journalist with the privately-owned Moscow-based radio station Ekho Moskvy, who had similar symptoms in October 2022 in the Georgian capital Tbilisi, where she is now based.
Several hundred Russian journalists have fled abroad because of the Russian government’s systematic persecution of independent media outlets. These journalists are almost the only ones able to provide their fellow citizens with freely and independently reported news and information.
Russia fell nine places in RSF's 2023 World Press Freedom Index, from 155th to 164th out of 180 countries.