Alesya Marokhovskaya and Irina Dolinina
Alesya Marokhovskaya (left) and Irina Dolinina, reporters at the Russian investigative news website IStories who live in Prague, have received threatening messages since March 2023. (Photos courtesy of Alesya Marokhovskaya and Irina Dolinina)

Two Prague-based Russian journalists threatened, fear surveillance

New York, September 21, 2023—Czech authorities must conduct a swift and thorough investigation into recent threats received by journalists at the independent investigative news website IStories and ensure the journalists’ safety, the Committee to Protect Journalists said Thursday.

Between March and September 2023, IStories received four threatening messages via the feedback form on the outlet’s website. The messages mentioned the names, addresses, and travel plans of IStories’ reporters Alesya Marokhovskaya and Irina Dolinina, according to a IStories report published September 19.

Both Marokhovskaya and Dolinina live in the Czech capital of Prague, where most of IStories’ editorial staff relocated following Russia’s full-scale invasion of Ukraine and subsequent criminalization of “false information” about the Russian military.

“The threats sent to exiled journalists Alesya Marokhovskaya and Irina Dolinina are another alarming reminder that the risks faced by independent Russian journalists do not stop when they relocate to European countries to continue their work,” said Gulnoza Said, CPJ’s Europe and Central Asia program coordinator. “Czech authorities must take those threats seriously, conduct a swift and thorough investigation into them, and ensure the journalists’ protection and safety.”

The first message, sent on March 3, said, “May your nits from the streets of [name of a street] and [name of another street] not sleep in peace! Hello to them!” according to a screenshot published by IStories. Marokhovskaya and Dolinina, whose home addresses are not publicly available, at that time lived in the streets mentioned in the message, the report said.

“Rest assured, you can’t hide from us anywhere. We know your scumbag ran away like a rat in terror, we will find her elsewhere. She’s not anywhere to go and she’ll have to answer for every lie and evil thing she’s said […]. We’ll find her wherever she walks her wheezing dog. None of you can hide anywhere now,” read the second message, which was sent August 24. Marokhovskaya has a dog that makes wheezing-like sounds due to breathing problems, IStories reported.

IStories said they decided to go public about the threats after having recently received messages warning both journalists against attending a journalism conference in Sweden. “You know who to tell this to: they can’t go to Gothenburg. Not even for a day. It’s known where to look for them. Trust me,” a September 14 message said.

The next day, IStories received a message mentioning the names of Marokhovskaya and Dolinina, as well as their flight and hotel information. “Take it seriously. I don’t want to scare you. I want to help. Tickets, hotel — everything is known. These are not just words,” the message said.

The journalists did not go to the conference for fear that they “could put in danger other participants,” Dolinina told CPJ via messaging app.

All the messages were sent from the email address “[email protected],” according to the screenshots. The March message was signed by “Yevgeny P.,” while the others were not signed. The letter “Z” became a pro-war symbol shortly after Russia began a full-scale invasion of Ukraine.

The journalists cannot tie the threats to any specific reporting, but both believe that they are connected to their reporting on the war, Dolinina told CPJ, adding, “We have done a lot about it.”

Marokhovskaya told CPJ via email that it has become “very difficult” to feel good. “It’s a lot of pressure when you don’t know what else to expect and from whom exactly,” she said. “It’s hard not to slip into paranoia.”

Dolinina and Marokhovskaya both filed a complaint with the Czech police on September 6, they told CPJ. Major Jan Danek, the head of the press department of the Regional Directorate of the Prague Police, told CPJ via email Friday that the police are aware of the matter but could not provide further specifics. 

Russian authorities’ have repeatedly harassed IStories, including by trying to intimidate its journalists and labeling the outlet a “foreign agent” and an “undesirable” organization.

Other Russian journalists living in exile have also been targets of harassment, surveillance, and suspected poisoning. On September 13, an investigation by rights group Access Now and research organization Citizen Lab revealed that the phone of Galina Timchenko, the Latvia-based head of independent Russian-language news website Meduza, was infected by Pegasus, a form of zero-click spyware produced by the Israeli company NSO Group, while she was in Germany in February. On the next day, three Latvia-based journalists reported that Apple had notified them that their phone could have been targeted by hacker attacks.

In August, Elena Kostyuchenko and Irina Babloyan, two exiled Russian journalists reported that they may have been poisoned in Germany and Georgia, respectively, in October 2022.

In July, Russian journalist Marfa Smirnova, a reporter with independent news website The Insider, who is now living in Georgia, reported that unidentified individuals have been sending her threatening messages via Telegram since April.

Those individuals had warned Smirnova to “stop writing” and “change her profession,” or otherwise face an “unavoidable meeting,” and sent her an audio recording of a conversation in her family’s Moscow apartment, a photo of her family members in a car, and said they knew her family’s home address, according to those reports. In an interview with the U.S. Congress-funded international broadcaster Voice Of America, she said the threats came after her reporting on the war in Ukraine.

(Editor’s note: The report was updated to include additional comments from police.)