Russian police raids home of journalist whose outlet investigated Alexei Navalny’s poisoning

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A participant holds a portrait of Anna Politkovskaya during a 2006 unauthorised rally to commemorate journalists who had been killed in Russia.
A participant holds a portrait of Anna Politkovskaya during a 2006 unauthorised rally to commemorate journalists who had been killed in Russia.   -  Copyright  MISHA JAPARIDZE/AP2006

Police in Russia raided the home of the chief editor of an investigative media outlet that was recently designated as a "foreign agent," the latest step by authorities to raise pressure on independent media ahead of the country's September parliamentary election.

Roman Dobrokhotov, chief editor of The Insider news site, tweeted on Wednesday morning that "police are knocking" on the door of his apartment. "Looks like it's a raid," Dobrokhotov said.

OVD-Info, a legal aid group that monitors political arrests, said Dobrokhotov's wife called the group's hotline and reported a police raid before her phone became unavailable.

A lawyer from another legal aid group, Pravozashchita Otkrytki, headed to Dobrokhotov's apartment. The group said police seized cellphones, laptops and tablets during the raid, as well as Dobrokhotov's international passport. Sergei Yezhov, a journalist with The Insider, said that Dobrokhotov was supposed to leave Russia on Wednesday.

Police also raided the home of Dobrokhotov’s parents, The Insider said. After the searches, Dobrokhotov was taken to a police precinct for questioning.

In a statement, Marie Struthers of Amnesty International called the raids “a blatant attempt to intimidate a journalist who has made clear his intention not to be silenced by the designation last week of his publication as a ‘foreign agent’.”

She added that “Russian authorities must end the harassment of Roman Dobrokhotov, remove the ‘foreign agent’ label from his publication, The Insider, and stop the witch hunt against journalists, civil society groups and human rights defenders who challenge Vladimir Putin’s repressive government. They must also decriminalise libel and stop using criminal proceedings against their critics.”

Russian opposition supporters, independent journalists and human rights activists have faced increased government pressure ahead of September's voting, which is widely seen as an important part of President Vladimir Putin's efforts to cement his rule before a 2024 presidential election.

The 68-year-old Russian leader, who has been in power for more than two decades, pushed through constitutional changes last year that would potentially allow him to hold onto power until 2036.

Since first taking office in May 2000, President Putin has regularly rolled back press freedoms. In 2006, a high profile journalist and Putin critic Anna Politkovskaya, whose portrait can be seen in the photo above, was assassinated at her residence. Reporters Without Borders has ranked Russia 150 in the 2021 World Press Freedom Index for its “repressive apparatus.”

In recent months, the government has designated several independent media outlets and journalists as "foreign agents" — a label that implies additional government scrutiny and carries strong pejorative connotations that could discredit the recipients.

The targeted outlets include VTimes and Meduza. VTimes subsequently shut down, citing the loss of advertisers, and Meduza launched a crowd-funding campaign after encountering the same problem.

The Insider, which is registered in Latvia and has published investigations into alleged corruption and abuses by Russian officials, purported Russian covert action in Ukraine and Syria, and the poisoning of Russian opposition leader Alexei Navalny, was the latest addition to the list.

The Justice Ministry acted under a law that is used to designate as foreign agents non-governmental organisations, media outlets and individuals who receive foreign funding and engage in activities loosely described as political.

In comments to the media, Dobrokhotov has said The Insider would continue to operate as usual, in accordance with Latvian laws, and would not comply with the requirements of the foreign agents law.

Russia used the law to levy heavy fines on U.S.-funded broadcaster Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty for failing to identify its material as produced by foreign agents. The broadcaster has asked the European Court of Human Rights to intervene.

According to the news outlet, the searches may be related to a slander case launched in April following a complaint by a Dutch journalist The Insider had accused of working with the Russian intelligence services.

The Insider accused Max van der Werff of working with Russian intelligence and military services to spread false information challenging the findings of the official investigation of the downing of the Malaysia Airlines Flight 17 over eastern Ukraine.