On June 10, Russian journalist Evgeny Kiselyov discovered that FSB, the Russian security service, had opened a criminal investigation against him on charges of inciting terrorism. Kiselyov believes the charges were likely sparked by remarks he made about Nadezhda Savchenko, a Ukrainian pilot who was captured in Eastern Ukraine by pro-Russian forces in June 2014 and forcibly taken to Russia to stand trial for alleged complicity in the killing of two Russian journalists.
In a recent interview with Ukrainian television channel, UkrlifeTV, Kiselyov was asked whether he thought Ukraine was doing everything possible to free Savchenko. The journalist responded by saying Ukraine should act more decisively against Russia to secure Savchenko’s freedom. The pilot, who had become a symbol of Ukraine’s resistance to Kremlin aggression, was subsequently freed in a prisoner swap on May 25, 2016.
Even if Kiselyov’s television comments did not directly trigger the investigation against him, Russia’s move against the journalist clearly seem to be motivated by political concerns. Kiselyov has been critical of Russia’s role in Ukraine, since the Euromaidan protests in 2014. His colleagues in Moscow informed him that the Kremlin had become increasingly concerned about his political activities, following his attendance at the Free Russia Forum in Vilnius, Lithuania in March 2016. The forum brought together leaders of the Russian opposition, as well as activists living abroad, to evaluate the current situation in Russia and discuss possible collaboration.
Kiselyov, who has been residing and working in Ukraine since 2008, wrote in a June 10 blog post on the website of Echo Moskvy, an independent Russian radio station, that the Russian government has tried to intimidate him into silence, by threatening and interrogating his family and relatives who still live in Moscow.
Kiselyov is not alone in being persecuted for his critical point of view. Over the last two years, there has been a spike in terrorism and extremism charges against Russian journalists and citizens active on social media for expressing dissenting views about the country’s involvement in Ukraine and annexation of the Crimean peninsula. The Kremlin’s message is clear: any criticism about Russia’s role in Ukraine and Crimea could lead to arrest.
The Kremlin’s broad definitions of terrorism and extremism have led to the erosion of free speech and undermined the press’s role as a watchdog and purveyor of objective, truthful information to Russia’s citizens. As a veteran Russian journalist living and working in Ukraine, Kiselev is in a position to bring international attention to these destructive dynamics.
Already, Kiselyov has issued an open letter to Ukrainian President Petro Poroshenko requesting asylum, and asking for improvements in the asylum application process for Russian citizens facing persecution or the threat of persecution from the Russian government. Kiselyov’s blunt public appeal to Poroshenko has already received a prompt response from the Ukrainian president, who has guaranteed Kiselyov’s personal safety and said he would improve the asylum process.
There is no doubt that Kiselyov’s public advocacy against the Russian government will further aggravate the Kremlin. It will also, hopefully, send a message to President Vladimir Putin that his crackdown against free speech and freedom of the press will not go unanswered.