Leading Russian opposition outlet will arm reporters with ‘traumatic weapons’

Press freedoms are on the decline around the world, but Russia's case is particularly concerning.

A man holds a portrait of Anna Politkovskaya, as people lay flowers made from newspapers to pay  respect to Politkovskaya, journalist of Novaya Gazeta, outside Novaya Gazeta head office in Moscow, Russia, Tuesday, Oct. 7, 2014. CREDIT: AP Photo/Ivan Sekretarev
A man holds a portrait of Anna Politkovskaya, as people lay flowers made from newspapers to pay respect to Politkovskaya, journalist of Novaya Gazeta, outside Novaya Gazeta head office in Moscow, Russia, Tuesday, Oct. 7, 2014. CREDIT: AP Photo/Ivan Sekretarev

Russia’s leading opposition newspaper is getting ready to arm its journalists amid an increasingly violent atmosphere for free speech and media across the country.

Novaya Gazeta editor Dmitry Muratov announced this week that his newspaper is buying “traumatic weapons” — likely pistols capable of firing rubber bullets — as a precautionary measure to protect reporters.

“I am going to arm the newsroom. I have no other means [for protection]. We have lived through many assassination attempts,” Muratov told Ekho Moskvy, Russia’s only independent news station on Wednesday.

Muratov’s comment sparked immediate controversy but Novaya Gazeta has doubled down on the editor’s announcement.

“A traumatic gun is a means of self-defense,” said Nadezhda Prusenkova, a spokesperson for the publication, on Thursday. Prusenkova told the Washington Post that Novaya Gazeta was only giving the weapons to journalists who requested them and that traditional firearms were not an option. Muratov’s words were “more an attempt to draw attention to the complexity of the situation than a declaration that Novaya Gazeta journalists will carry weapons from now on,” Prusenkova said.

Novaya Gazeta’s announcement came two days after a man attacked and viciously stabbed Tatiana Felgenhauer, a reporter for Ekho Moskvy. The assailant broke into the radio station’s offices and stabbed Felgenhauer in the neck. He later claimed she had used telepathy to sexually harass him.

Felgenhauer survived the attack, but her experience has further heightened an already-tense climate for journalists in Russia, in which Novaya Gazeta has been disproportionately impacted. Numerous Novaya Gazeta journalists have either been murdered or died under deeply mysterious circumstances.

The most famous of those is Anna Politkovskaya, a dogged Kremlin critic and celebrated reporter. Unidentified assailants murdered Politkovskaya in the elevator of her apartment in Moscow in 2006; her death remains one of the most notorious assassinations in modern Russia.

Politkovskaya’s fate isn’t unique — Anastasia Baburova, a freelancer with Novaya Gazeta, was also killed along with human rights lawyer Stanislav Markelov in 2009. Their deaths have weighed on Novaya Gazeta and the publication is hoping to prevent any further tragedies by introducing weapons and training reporters to protect themselves.

“I have no other options left,” Muratov said. “I am going to send some employees for training. We will officially sign an agreement with the Russian Interior Ministry. We will buy traumatic weapons and train [journalists] to use them. And we will also equip our journalists with other means of self-defense that I won’t speak about.”

Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov offered that citizens should take necessary precautions to protect themselves.

“Anyone can be subject to the attack of a crazy person, unfortunately no one is protected against this,” he said. “So I don’t think it is justified to single out journalists.”

Peskov notably did not address the dire situation facing many independent voices in Russia. A hardline government and culture of impunity for Kremlin allies has nurtured a terrifying climate for many figures. Opposition leader Boris Nemtsov was assassinated in 2015 after years spent criticizing Putin, while a number of former agents and spies have mysteriously died overseas. Contemporary regime critic Alexei Navalny has also been arrested repeatedly and barred from running for office.

Under President Vladimir Putin, the Kremlin has repeatedly cracked down on the press, curtailing media freedoms and creating a hostile environment for reporters. Freedom House gave Russia a media ranking of “not free” in 2016, with the country earning an 83 on a scale of one to 100, with 100 being the worst. Nationalism overwhelmingly dominates Russian media, with very few independent and autonomous voices allowed to operate, something that has amplified since the country intervened in Syria’s civil war.

State-run media notably accused Ekho Moskvy of broadcasting Western propaganda prior to Felgenhauer’s stabbing. That may or may not have anything to do with the attack itself — Felgenhauer’s attacker appears to have been obsessed with her — but for Russian journalists, it feeds into a wider perception that they aren’t safe.

“If the state is not ready to protect us, we will protect ourselves,” Novaya Gazeta deputy editor Sergei Sokolov told AFP. “When journalists find themselves helpless in the face of lawlessness on the streets and indiscipline of law enforcement agencies, there is no other way.”

Prusenkova also offered that arming journalists might be more about optics than an actual attempt to encourage reporters to fire at their attackers.

“In many ways it is a psychological thing: those who might consider attacking a journalist of Novaya Gazeta as a possibility will think twice when they know that a journalist can respond using means of self-defense,” she said.

Journalists in a number of countries have faced an uptick in violence in recent years. Global press freedom declined to its lowest point in 13 years in 2016. Repeat offenders like China and Turkmenistan remain antagonistic to the media while governments in countries like Hungary and Poland are increasingly eroding media freedoms.

The United States is among those nations experiencing a decline in press freedoms after receiving its worst press freedom score in more than a decade in 2017. Much of this decline has been attributed to the rise of President Trump, who has repeatedly lashed out at the media and criticized coverage of his administration. In August, the U.N. High Commissioner for Human Rights singled out Trump’s antagonism towards the press after a politician assaulted a journalist from The Guardian with no pushback from the president.

“It’s really quite amazing when you think that freedom of the press, not only sort of a cornerstone of the U.S. Constitution but very much something that the United States defended over the years, is now itself under attack from the President,” Zeid Ra‘ad al-Hussein said. “It’s sort of a stunning turnaround. And ultimately the sequence is a dangerous one.”

The commissioner also pointed to Trump’s repeated references to “fake news” and inaccurate reporting, accusations made without any evidence to back them.

“To call these news organizations ‘fake’ does tremendous damage,” said Hussein, “and to refer to individual journalists in this way, I have to ask the question, is this not an incitement for others to attack journalists?”