New York, December 21, 2016–The Committee to Protect Journalists today called on Russian authorities to ensure the safety of independent journalist Mikhail Afanasyev, editor of the online magazine Novy Fokus in the Siberian republic of Khakassia, after the head of a criminal gang based in a neighboring region threatened to kill him because of his critical reporting on the gang’s activities.
On November 6, Afanasyev, who is known for his investigations into sensitive regional issues such as police negligence, abuse of power, and organized crime, reported on the activities of a criminal group active in the Krasnoyarsk region of Siberia. In his article, Afanasyev detailed the gang’s alleged criminal activities, including multiple robberies, breaking and entering, and severe beatings of locals. He also reported on the local authorities’ alleged practice of repeatedly briefly detaining and releasing gang members. The Moscow-based independent newspaper Novaya Gazeta has also reported on the gang.
A month after the publication of the article, headlined “In Kuragino, bandits have local police in a chokehold,” Afanasyev received a phone call from a man claiming to be the gang’s leader, Andrei Ashcheulov. The journalist recorded the call, and CPJ obtained the recording yesterday. In a stream of curse words, the man threatens to “rip off your everything,” calls Afanasyev a “condemned man” and promises “I am already around the corner.” The man claiming to be Ashchelulov demanded that Afanasyev remove the November 6 material from the Novy Fokus website or face retribution.
“We call on authorities in the Republic of Khakassia and in the neighboring Krasnoyarsk region to immediately investigate the death threats against Mikhail Afanasyev and to ensure his and his family’s safety,” CPJ Europe and Central Asia Program Coordinator Nina Ognianova said. “It is outrageous that a journalist should live in fear because of his work while those who threaten him enjoy their freedom due to the indifference of law enforcement. This is how impunity thrives and begets violence against journalists.”
Afanasyev, who has previously been threatened, physically attacked, and prosecuted in retaliation for his work, told CPJ he reported the threats to local police in the Khakassia city of Abakan, and asked for protection. However, Afanasyev said, police have yet to act upon his complaint. He also published the recording of the threatening call online, in Novy Fokus. While the Khakassia authorities did not respond to Afanasyev’s report about the threat or to his request for protection, the regional branch of the state media regulator Roskomnadzor contacted the journalist shortly after he published the recording, Novaya Gazeta reported. The agency demanded that Afanasyev take down the audio because it contains vulgar language, the journalist told CPJ. “It turns out that both the criminals and the authorities want the same thing–that I censor myself,” Afanasyev told CPJ. “What of the fact that a journalist is being threatened with murder? It turns out there is no one to protect us.”