«Defending Democracy: Investigative Journalism vs Authoritarianism»


On March 29, 2021 Boris Nemtsov Foundation for Freedom and the Foundation for Democratic Development held a joint online conference on investigative journalism in Russia, Belarus, and Ukraine, hosted by the European Parliament platform “EU East Neighbourhood – Friends of European Russia”. The round table discussion featured the authors of high-profile investigations of the recent years: Hristo Grozev («Bellingcat»), Maria Pevchikh («FBK»), Roman Badanin («Proekt»), Mikhail Maglov («Scanner Project»), Natalia Sedletskaya («Radio Svoboda», Ukraine), Tadeusz Gichan («NEXTA»), as well as other Russian and foreign journalists and experts. The meeting was moderated by Sergey Aleksashenko – economist and co-founder of the Boris Nemtsov Foundation for Freedom.

Recording of the conference

Booming investigative journalism and weak state institutions

Opening the roundtable discussion, Zhanna Nemtsova, the co-founder of the Boris Nemtsov Foundation, noted the dysfunction of Russian state institutions was the main reason why investigative journalism is flourishing in Russia: “We have no functioning institutions, including investigating authorities. Thus, investigative journalism simply replaces them. The recent Scanner Project investigation of the new circumstances surrounding the murder of Boris Nemtsov is a case in point. We have learned a lot, not only because the investigative agencies are under the control of top state officials and Putin, but also because they have simply lost some of their investigative skills. At the same time, Russian investigative journalists are becoming more and more professional.

Another reason for this boom in the country is the great public demand for investigative journalism. Despite a significant number of high-profile investigations, there are very few independent journalist groups in Russia. As Roman Badanin, the founder and editor-in-chief of Proekt, observed: “The truth is that real investigative journalism is in high demand in Russia. There are about 500 registered nongovernmental journalistic projects in the U.S., but in Russia, we can count about ten of them.

 Export of corruption and sanctions against oligarchs

One of the central topics of the discussion was the export of Russian corruption to Western Europe. Mikhail Maglov, an investigative journalist, stressed: “Russian representatives and their close circle talk openly about a so-called “distinct way” but both our colleagues’ and our investigations show that their future is already tied closely to Europe. I get disappointed with the European institutions that turn a blind eye to the large transactions of dirty money. This money has been stolen from Russian people. I believe that we should fight this at the very least from the viewpoint of a civilized Western model.” His opinion was shared by Maria Pevchikh, the head of the investigation department of the Anti-Corruption Foundation: “European institutions have to understand that if they want to influence Putin and make him leave, they have to take away these sources of his wealth and support for his regime, this money. And this money is in the pockets of oligarchs, the friends of Putin, the latter, in fact, made them oligarchs. They have European citizenships, they have endless wealth. Without them, Putin is nothing.”

In Germany, there is quite fertile ground for everything that Kremlin does. A part of the German public always says that Russia has its own interests. If you look at former German Chancellor Schroeder, he is now actively working with Putin. He denies Navalny poisoning and Skripal attack. He gets a lot of money from Putin, but he doesn’t hide it either.
Fidelius Schmid, a journalist of German magazine «Der Spiegel»

“The flows of corrupt money between oligarchs and kleptocrats from Russia, Belarus and Ukraine are clearly visible to journalists and watchdog organizations. The kleptocracy influence leaves a trail. Very often this trail leads us to Austria, Cyprus, and sometimes even to the United States. The best way to fight this is to block these illegal money flows”, adds Daria Kalenyuk, the executive director of the Ukrainian «Anti-Corruption Center».

Investigative work under authoritarianism

According to «Radio Svoboda» special correspondent Sergei Khazov-Kassia, corruption in Russia is the main element of Vladimir Putin’s authoritarian rule: “Absolutely all people who are somehow close to the oil sector are involved in embezzlement. Crimes in the fuel industry are handled by both the Interior Ministry and the FSB. This is why both the police and FSB officers are involved in these embezzlements. Moreover, the FSB is the main organizing structure behind the entire corruption system.

Investigative journalism plays a particularly important role in countries that have not yet been able to part ways with authoritarianism. First of all, I mean Belarus and Russia. And such investigative groups as «Bellingcat», «FBK», and many others do exactly what the parliament and civil society do in normal democracies.
Andrius Kubilius, MEP, Co-Chairman of Euronest PA

Hristo Grozev («Bellingcat»), the author of the investigation into the poisoning of Alexey Navalny, emphasized that in Russia the work of investigative groups is often accompanied by direct pressure from state authorities, as well as anonymous threats against journalists: “We notice that «Bellingcat» is constantly being vilified. For example, the representative of the Ministry of Foreign Affairs Maria Zakharova is trying to discredit us in every possible way. We face Internet trolling, we and our relatives constantly receive threats.

Russian influence on Ukraine and Belarus

“The Kremlin views the support of corruption in Ukraine as a guarantee of keeping Kiev in the orbit of Moscow’s influence,” believes Natalia Sedletskaya, a journalist and the author of the investigative program «Schemes». Taduesh Gichan, the editor of the Belarusian TV channel «NEXTA», shares her opinion on Russian authorities: “It’s no secret that Lukashenko is still in power only thanks to Putin. Almost all of the various gray schemes through which Lukashenko and his close circle get rich are usually linked to Russia.

“The result of Russian foreign policy is the situation that we are now observing in Belarus,” added Serge Kharitonov, Belarusian expert from iSANS. He recalled that in August 2020, it was the Kremlin that sent groups of so-called “analysts” to all major Belarusian cities with a task to oppose peaceful protests.

Closing the discussion, Aleksashenko noted that, above all, European politicians should do their job: “They should not so much help the investigative journalism in Russia, Belarus, and Ukraine as make key decisions at home, in the EU, precisely to prevent corrupt ideas from entering the European space.