Reporters Without Borders (RSF) condemns the Russian government’s unacceptable persecution of Novye Kolesa, the leading independent newspaper in Russia’s western exclave of Kaliningrad, which finally resulted in the weekly announcing that today’s issue is the last.
Novye Kolesa endured all kinds of pressure during its 23 years of existence but the past five months of intense harassment were unprecedented. Its editor was arrested, part of its equipment was seized, it lost its advertisers, it was repeatedly prosecuted, and warnings from the regulatory authority opened the way to the future withdrawal of its licence.
The final blows were the ousting of Novye Kolesa from the print media distribution networks and a sudden decision by the company that printed the weekly that it was terminating the contract. It was acting editor Yuri Grozmani who announced yesterday that today’s issue would be the last.
The previous issue was withdrawn from sale shortly after its publication on 29 March. Witnesses told the newspaper that unidentified individuals went to newsstands, seized all the copies on sale, and threatened vendors. Then distribution network representatives gave orders to hide all the remaining copies.
That issue’s front-page story was about the death of a Kaliningrad resident in detention. The story suggested that he had been tortured to death by the Federal Security Service (FSB) and it included photos of the FSB agents allegedly involved.
The distribution networks now claim that it was not profitable to sell Novye Kolesa although every issue usually sold out within a few days. The printing company gave the same grounds for its sudden decision yesterday to terminate its contract. Grozmani said Kaliningrad governor Anton Alikhanov “put pressure on the commercial circuits.”
Novye Kolesa editor Igor Rudnikov has not been able to defend his newspaper because he has been in prison since the start of November. A Moscow court extended his pre-trial detention for another two months on 29 March. Known for determined investigative reporting into corruption and local politics, he is being held on a clearly trumped-up charge of extortion.
“The authorities did everything possible to silence Novye Kolesa and its editor,” said Johann Bihr, the head of RSF’s Eastern Europe and Central Asia desk. “Their fate speaks volumes about the tight control now being imposed on the media in a region that until recently was regarded as among the least hostile to journalism.
“We firmly call on the authorities to end this harassment, which constitutes a clear act of censorship. They must allow Novye Kolesa to resume its activities, release Igor Rudnikov without delay and drop all judicial proceedings against him and his colleagues.”
Rudnikov is facing up to 15 years in prison on a charge of trying to blackmail Gen. Victor Ledenev, the head of the local branch of the Investigative Committee, which is responsible for investigating the most serious crimes in Russia.
Rudnikov’s lawyers say there is no hard evidence against him and that the case is riddled with procedural flaws. Colleagues point out that Gen. Ledenev was targeted in a Novye Kolesa story in June 2017 about undeclared real estate properties, and that he therefore had every reason to want Rudnikov out of the way.
The situation of Kaliningrad’s media has worsened dramatically since Alikhanov, a young man reportedly close to the circles around Vladimir Putin, became its governor in September 2017. Amid mounting threats and prosecution, the state-owned public broadcaster has been taking a more aggressive editorial line towards the independent media.
Several media outlets have decided to close, while others have become less critical of the local authorities. Kaliningrad is one of the 11 Russian cities that will host FIFA World Cup matches this summer.
Russia is ranked 148th out of 180 countries in RSF's 2017 World Press Freedom Index.