Russian news site editor get long jail term for story about Russo-Ukrainian war
A Russian court sentenced a Siberian news site editor to five and a half years in prison on 7 September for showing the true face of the war in Ukraine. Reporters Without Borders (RSF) calls on the international community to support independent Russian journalism.
The editor of the Novy Fokus regional news website in Khakassia, in south-central Siberia, Mikhail Afanasyev has paid a high price for defying Russia’s war censorship, becoming one of the first journalists to receive a jail sentence under article 207.3.2 of the penal code, for publishing "fake news” about the Russian armed forces.
Arrested on 13 April 2022 for reporting that 11 members of Khakassia’s anti-riot police had refused to go and fight in Ukraine, he spent 17 months in provisional detention before finally being tried and sentenced by a court in the Khakassian capital, Abakan.
“Thousands of kilometres from Kherson and Bakhmut, the Russian information war has claimed a new victim. Mikhail Afanasyev is paying with his freedom for trying to inform his compatriots about the reality of the bloody war waged by Vladimir Putin in Ukraine. This is now the price of truth in Russia. We condemn this systemic censorship and call for action by the international community to ensure the survival of independent Russian journalism.
A specialist in investigative reporting in the heart of Siberia, Afanasyev has been awarded the Sakharov prize for journalism twice.
But his reporting has angered powerful people and he has been subjected to death threats and every other kind of pressure in the course of a 26-year career. In 2012, it was reported that he had faced no fewer than 13 defamation suits over the years and had won every one.
But he failed to avoid a prison sentence from a judicial system now firmly under Putin’s thumb. As well as five and a half years in jail, the court also banned him from practising journalism for two and a half years after his release.
The current level of press censorship in Russia is unprecedented since the Soviet Union’s collapse. After Putin launched his invasion of Ukraine, Afanasyev was one of the last independent journalists to cover the war from within Russia despite the press clampdown and terror imposed by the draconian laws adopted on 4 March 2022.
They also included Sergei Mikhailov, who was arrested the same day and for the same reasons as Afanasyev. Mikhailov, editor of Listok, another Siberian newspaper, is also facing a heavy sentence, possibly as much as 15 years in prison. Despite mounting threats, Listok’s journalists continued to cover subjects banned by the media regulator, including the massacre carried out in Bucha by the Russian army.
Journalists are not the only victims of this judicial harassment. Any citizen sharing content or expressing a view at variance with the government’s propaganda can be prosecuted. According to the Russian human rights organisation and media outlet OVD-Info, nearly 20,000 people have been arrested for anti-war views since the start of the invasion.
As a result of the relentless censorship, Russia has become a desert for news and information and has plummeted in RSF’s World Press Freedom Index, in which it is now ranked 164th out of 180 countries.