Prokopyeva, a well-known journalist in the town of Pskov, near Russia’s border with Estonia, read out one of her pieces on Echo of Moscow, an independent radio station, in November, and a version of the article was published online, as well. The previous month, Zhlobitsky had injured three FSB officers when he blew himself up outside the security service’s offices, after announcing his affiliation to an anarchist movement and arguing in a note on the Telegram messaging app that the FSB had “fabricated cases and tortured people.”
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Her piece criticized arms of the Russian government, and said the country had begun to view activists as enemies of the state. Russia’s federal communications regulator, Roskomnadzor, complained to the courts about the article, which was taken down soon afterward, and Echo of Moscow had to pay a 150,000 ruble, or $2,300, fine. Pskov Lenta Novostei, an online news outlet, was fined 200,000 rubles for republishing the article.
“I must have offended the FSB leadership in Moscow,” Prokopyeva told me, “because they are really angry with me.”
Last month, a group of security officers called the Special Rapid Response Unit, clad in helmets and carrying shields and rubber truncheons, searched her tiny, two-room apartment in Pskov, she recounted to me. They were accompanied by interior-ministry officials from Center E, an agency whose official role is to combat extremism and terrorism. Several uniformed officers began digging through her clothes, her papers, and even her underwear, and left with all of her technical equipment—two laptops, an iPad, and memory cards—and printouts of her freelance-journalist contracts. Prokopyeva, who also worked for the U.S.-funded outlet Radio Free Europe, said they were particularly interested in her agreements with the organization. The investigation into Prokopyeva’s work is ongoing, but if she is charged, she faces up to seven years in prison.
“To all of us professional journalists, this attack on our colleague means that each one of us can be accused of crimes for our work,” Tatyana Felgenhauer, Echo of Moscow’s deputy editor in chief, told me. Felgenhauer herself was stabbed in the neck in 2017 by a man who broke into the radio station’s offices and later claimed that he “had to hurt her to stop her,” yet she continues to criticize the Russian government on her morning show.
The investigation of Prokopyeva is symptomatic of the worsening environment for free expression in Russia. The country ranked 148th worldwide in Reporters Without Borders’ 2018 World Press Freedom Index, and in the nearly 20 years since Putin first became president—including an interlude when he was prime minister but widely seen as the power behind the throne—violence against journalists and human-rights activists has become worryingly frequent. The recent fake-news law zoomed through both chambers of the country’s Parliament in less than a month, and the Kremlin wants to make anything associated with the state sacred, walled off from criticism. Offending the feelings of Russian state officials is becoming a dangerous business.