New York, October 26, 2020 – Russian federal authorities should investigate the circumstances of the death of journalist Irina Slavina, who died of self-immolation in early October after a campaign of legal harassment by authorities, the Committee to Protect Journalists said today.
On October 2, 2020, Slavina, founder and chief editor of independent news website Koza.Press, died after setting herself on fire outside a regional branch of the interior ministry building in the Russian city of Nizhny Novgorod, 400 kilometers (248 miles) east of Moscow, Russian and international media reported. She posted that same day on her Facebook page, “For my death, please blame the Russian Federation.” Slavina, 47, was known by her pen name; her legal last name was Murakhtayeva.
The previous day, law enforcement had raided her apartment, which also served as the office for Koza.Press, according to the journalist’s Facebook post and media reports. She wrote on Facebook that the search started at 6 a.m., when 12 officers from the Special Rapid Response Unit of Russia’s National Guard, the Federal Security Service (FSB), the local branch of Russia’s Investigative Committee, as well as police, “arrived with electric saws” to cut the door open and searched her apartment.
“Irina Slavina experienced relentless harassment and persecution in the form of repeated trials and hefty fines, culminating with the raid of her home and the seizure of her equipment the day before her death,” said Gulnoza Said, CPJ’s Europe and Central Asia program coordinator. “Russian federal authorities should investigate the circumstances of Slavina’s death and hold to account those who violated the journalist’s rights during the raid of her apartment and before.”
Officers confiscated her laptop, cell phone, USB sticks, and written notes from a press conference, as well as laptops and cell phones belonging to her husband and daughter, according to Slavina’s Facebook post in which she added that she “was left without means of production” for her journalistic work. Slavina also wrote that the officers were looking for brochures and leaflets of Open Russia, an organization affiliated with Mikhail Khodorkovsky, an exiled former oligarch and critic of President Vladimir Putin. Slavina wrote that the officers had not allowed her to fully dress before they began their search, nor was she allowed to call her lawyer.
According to reports, officers took Slavina to the police station where she was interrogated about political activism of local entrepreneur Mikhail Iosilevich. Iosilevich, whose apartment was searched and who was also interrogated that day, was criminally charged with alleged involvement in Open Russia, an organization the Russian Ministry of Justice labeled as “undesirable,” media reported. He was released pending an investigation and prohibited from traveling. Slavina was considered a witness in the case, according to the same reports. Five other witnesses in the case were also interrogated and subjected to searches, the reports said.
On October 2, following Slavina’s death, the local branch of the Investigative Committee issued a statement saying the death was caused by “thermal burns” and added that media reports linking the death to the raid a day earlier “have no basis whatsoever.”
On October 5, 2020, the Professional Union of Journalists and Media Workers, a non-governmental trade and advocacy group, published an open letter calling for accountability from the authorities for their pressure on the journalist. “We are confident that the reason for Irina’s death was a constant pressure on the journalist from law enforcement,” the statement said.
Before founding Koza.Press in 2015, Slavina, a former Russian language teacher, worked as a journalist for local state-owned newspapers Nizhegorodskaya Pravda, Nizhegorodskiy Rabochiy, and pro-government local news websites Newsroom24 and News-NN, according to a May 2020 post marking Koza.Press’s fifth anniversary and reports. Slavina wrote that editors at these sites often refused to publish her articles, and that she was eventually forced to resign from all of her previous outlets over her critical reporting on authorities.
At Koza.Press, where Slavina was founder, owner, and chief editor, she often faced harassment from authorities for her coverage of local events. On August 3, 2020, a court found Slavina guilty of “disseminating false news” and ordered her to pay a fine of 65,000 rubles (US$833). The charges stemmed from the journalist’s March 24, 2020 report about an alleged COVID-19 case in a martial arts club in the town of Kstovo near Nizhny Novgorod. Following the journalist’s death, a Nizhny Novgorod district court on October 13, 2020 overruled the previous ruling “due to the death of [Slavina],” Koza.Press reported.
In September 2019, a court in Nizhny Novgorod ordered Slavina to pay a fine of 5,000 rubles (US$64) for participating in an April 2019 event organized by Open Russia, according to reports. Slavina attended the event as a journalist, reports said.
On August 7, 2019, after she posted on Facebook making fun of local authorities’ decision to honor the memory of Josef Stalin with a plaque in Shakhunya near Nizhny Novgorod, she was prosecuted for “disrespecting authorities” under a new law. In October 2019, she was ordered to pay a fine 70,000 rubles (US$903), Russian state news agency Interfax reported.
On February 24, 2019, Slavina attended a march in memory of Boris Nemtsov, the slain opposition leader and former governor of Nizhny Novgorod, media reported. The day before, local police had detained Slavina for seven hours without charges in order to deter her from marching, according to the same reports. On March 14, 2019, a court in Nizhny Novgorod found Slavina guilty of organizing the march without official permission and ordered her to pay a fine of 20,000 rubles (US$258), according to the same reports. Slavina denied the charges and said she had arrived at the march as a reporter, but someone gave her the portrait of Nemtsov which she was holding at the time of arrest.
The journalist’s lawyer, Yevgeniy Gubin, told BBC that there were up to 12 administrative cases against Slavina that “all ended in fines.” “In the past 18 months [before her death], the prosecutions were constant,” Gubin said, according to the report.
CPJ emailed requests for comment on Slavina’s death, on the raid of her apartment, and the multiple legal cases against Koza.Press to the Nizhny Novgorod branch of the Investigative Committee, the Federal Investigative Committee, and Russia’s Ministry of Interior but did not immediately receive replies.