When Russian minister of Emergency Situations Yevgeny Zinichev died on 8th September near the industrial Siberian city of Norilsk, the official version was that he heroically sacrificed himself trying to save a cameraman from falling off a cliff. Almost immediately a second, unofficial, version emerged claiming he was actually visiting a waterfall when he slipped and fell off a cliff, taking a cameraman with him. In Russia—where there is increasing distrust of official state narratives, and an ongoing crackdown on independent media that has forced me and many others to leave the country—it is difficult to know what is true and what is fiction.
Adding to the suspicion surrounding this story is the fact that the official version was announced by Margarita Simonyan, the notorious head of the state propaganda channel RT. (It was Simonyan who interviewed on RT the two Russian intelligence officers believed to have attempted to kill Sergei Skripal in Salisbury with Novichok.)
This is the atmosphere in which Russia’s parliamentary election took place last month. With President Vladimir Putin’s party polling at near-historic lows, the authorities have intensified a campaign to clamp down on independent media, censor the internet and try and stop anti-fraud protests like those that erupted in 2011.
Earlier this year, Russia’s justice ministry designated Proekt, the investigative news site I founded, an “undesirable organisation” and labelled most of its team members “foreign agents,” effectively banning all our activity in Russia. In addition, three Proekt journalists, including myself, had libel charges filed against us. Any one of the charges can result in jail time. Since April, at least ten media outlets have been targeted by the government. The real journalism covering Russia is increasingly being done in exile—and is dependent on being shared online.
For that to continue, big tech platforms like Facebook, YouTube and Twitter must fight Russian pressure to censor. Western leaders also need to raise media freedom and the rights of journalists at the Organisation for Security and Co-operation in Europe (OSCE) as well as in the US to ensure that the issue cannot be forgotten. These issues are not just about Russia, but about the freedom of the press in a world where it is increasingly under attack, even in western countries.
The Krasnoyarsk region where Zinichev died demonstrates how freedom of the press is declining. There are 45 registered state media outlets. None of them attempted to verify the circumstances around the minister’s death. This is the paradox of the Putin era: there are thousands of government-affiliated media outlets operating in the country, but citizens' access to news is becoming more restricted with every passing day. In an election where Russia kept out OSCE monitors, counting inconsistencies will also go unchecked.
It’s not as if we don’t know the real harm censorship can cause. In 1986, following the explosion at the Chernobyl nuclear plant, the Soviet authorities covered up the true extent of the damage. But three days after the explosion, journalists from a small Swedish newspaper Tidningarnas Telegrambyra noticed a radioactive cloud over Scandinavia. If not for their revelations, the Kremlin, which had absolute control of the Soviet media, would have hidden the truth even longer, putting the lives of thousands if not millions at risk. That ignorance is the true cost of censorship, then and now.
Why should what happened to a minister in distant Siberia be relevant to the outside world? His death is no second Chernobyl. Zinichev was close to Putin and was the president’s bodyguard before eventually being promoted to head of the Ministry of Emergency Situations. This institution is tasked with responding to natural and human-made disasters, from accidents at nuclear power plants to colossal forest fires in Siberia. It’s little surprise that the Russian authorities—who have continuously denied undertaking the suspected murders and poisoning of ex spies such as Skripal and Litvinenko in the UK—can successfully hide from the public the circumstances of a minister’s death.
It didn’t have to be this way. Until recently, the independent TV channel TV2, based in the Siberian city of Tomsk, was actively covering important regional news. Perhaps it could have sought the truth about what happened to Minister Zinichev, if the Russian authorities had not revoked its licence in 2015 for reasons widely perceived as political. The channel was shuttered, and its head forced to leave Russia. Acclaimed independent Russian media outlets and even the BBC have since faced similar censorship. This has created an atmosphere of doubt and cynicism—just like there was in the Soviet Union—and it threatens countries everywhere.