Russia’s most popular independent media outlet, Meduza, waded into a firestorm this week when it published an investigation into a group of men recently given huge jail sentences on dubious terrorism charges. In the article, former associates of the accused claimed they were involved in drug dealing, and had carried out a double murder. Opposition activists immediately criticized Meduza for discrediting a public campaign to free the men, alleging the journalists had been manipulated by the security services.
- The so-called Network case has been one of the most controversial criminal investigations in Russia in recent years. In 2017, the Federal Security Service (FSB) announced it had uncovered a radical leftwing organization called Network that was planning a series of terror attacks. A total of 11 people were arrested in the case, and several weapons were seized.
- Almost all of those arrested admitted guilt, but four later testified their confessions had been extracted under torture. There is little doubt this is true: signs of physical abuse on the defendants were found during medical examinations. It is also easy to believe the whole case was invented — another radical organization recently ‘uncovered’ by the FSB also bears the hallmarks of a fabrication. Despite this, seven of the accused were each given prison sentences of between 6 years and 18 years earlier this month. Court hearings for several others began this week.
- In Meduza’s controversial article, two acquaintances of the defendants said Network members had supported themselves by selling drugs. After the first arrests, the rest went on the run. Then, when two of them, Artyom Dorofeyev and Yekaterina Levchenko, decided they wanted to go home, they were shot and stabbed on the orders of the group’s leader, Dmitry Pchelintsev. The youngest member of the group, Alexey Poltavets, who later fled Russia, told Meduza he took part in the murders.
- In a special editorial published at the same time as the article, Meduza conceded the article was “one of the most difficult in their editorial history”. The authors said they were confident the Network case was fabricated, but maintained society had a right to know about the murders (which had been ignored by law enforcement).
- Meduza was hit with a flurry of criticism led by allies of opposition leader Alexey Navalny, who has repeatedly attacked independent media outlets for allegedly collaborating with the authorities. Some accused Meduza of being manipulated by the FSB, others even suggested there had been deliberate collusion.
- Critics highlighted that one the obvious problems with the article is that it does not meet journalistic standards: in places the text is highly speculative, and the journalists did not get responses from most of the people they were implicating in very serious crimes. Some noticed that the article had been put together in great haste (Meduza’s journalists first found out about the murder accusations on 14 February and published just 7 days later). It also emerged that Meduza’s sources had previously shared their version of events with other independent media outlets, which declined to publish anything, in part because these sources changed their story several times. Finally, the article went live at 8:30pm on Friday: important investigations like this are very rarely released at such a ‘dead time’ for online news.
- Those of a more conspiratorial mindset pointed out that the remaining defendants in the Network case were due to go on trial the day after publication, and that the FSB likely wanted to discredit them ahead of the hearing. Predictably, the Meduza article was widely referenced by state-owned television networks.
Why the world should care
Meduza is a genuinely independent media outlet, and The Bell is certain there was no deliberate collusion with the FSB. After enduring several days of criticism, Meduza had to explain it had rushed to publish because its journalists knew the relatives of the two victims were about to go public. This seems the most plausible explanation: sometimes journalistic instinct wins out over ethics and standards when it comes to being first with a story.
Disclaimer: The Bell’s founder, Elizaveta Osetinskaya, is a member of Meduza’s board of directors, and the author of this article is acquainted with many Meduza journalists