6 October 2020
By the Union of Journalists and Mass Media Workers
On Friday, 2 October, the journalist Irina Slavina set fire to herself outside the police department building in the centre of Nizhny Novgorod. Irina was 47 years old and she should not have died. One hour before her suicide Irina published a post on Facebook: “I ask you to blame the Russian Federation for my death”.
The day before, at 6:00am on 1 October, Irina Slavina’s apartment was searched: ’12 persons entered the apartment with a petrol powered cutter and a crowbar: officers of the Investigative Committee, the police, the SOBR riot police and witnesses.’ Slavina described what happened: ‘I was naked and got dressed while a woman I did not know watched over me.’ The journalist was not allowed to call her lawyer, and the law enforcement officers had brought along the witnesses themselves. As a witness in a case concerning an undesirable organisation, computers, telephones, notebooks and flash drives were seized from the journalist and her family. ‘I was left without the tools for doing my job,’ Irina wrote the day before her tragic death. This search was the fifth time law enforcement agencies had interfered in Irina Slavina’s life in the last two years.
The series of prosecutions of the journalist began in March 2019. Then the court had fined Irina 20,000 roubles for taking part in a walk in memory of Boris Nemtsov holding a portrait of the murdered politician. In July 2019 she was fined 5,000 roubles for posts on Facebook about the ‘Free People’ forum in Nizhny Novgorod – for an offence under the article of the Criminal Code concerning undesirable organisations. Then she was put on trial for a pun that she had published on a social network. The court fined Irina another 70,000 roubles – at that time the biggest fine under the new article of the Criminal Code concerning disrespect for the authorities.
In June 2020, the police found inaccurate information in an article Irina had written and they drew up a charge sheet because of an error in the article falsely stating that one of the leaders of the Sambo Academy in Kstovo had contracted coronavirus. The mistake was unintentional – Irina had trusted the source. Nevertheless, she was fined 65,000 roubles by the court.
As a philologist by education, Irina Murakhtaeva (Slavina is her pen name) worked for several years as a teacher of Russian language and literature. She began her professional career in journalism in 2003 at the government newspaper Nizhny Novgorodskaya Pravda. But she was not satisfied with censorship, so, as she said, ‘her dismissal was a foregone conclusion.’ By 2015 she had managed to work for three different local publications in Nizhny Novgorod but eventually she ‘quit and became a freelancer.’ She wrote describing her dismissal: ‘There are no more editors or media outlets in the region that would risk taking me on.’ That was when Irina created her own media outlet – the independent portal Koza.Press, simultaneously combining the work of publisher, editor and journalist. The portal existed on readers’ donations.
Irina wrote about acute problems and asked inconvenient questions: why in a pandemic was dangerous medical waste not being made safe? Why under the pretext of quarantine were residents being deprived of the right to vote at public hearings on amendments to the city plan? How does it turn out that municipal property worth millions goes into private hands almost for nothing? Irina was not afraid to write about corruption, government procurement fraud and politically motivated prosecutions. They tried to intimidate her: on two occasions the tyres of her car were slashed and the windscreen smashed; slanderous leaflets were slipped through her neighbours’ doors accusing her of justifying terrorism. But the police could never find those responsible, even when Irina provided a video. And then law enforcement took on Irina herself.
By 2019, Koza.press had become the second most quoted media in the region. The publication became influential in Nizhny Novgorod; it was read by many officials. ‘We had to drag our portal to the forefront, while earning money on the side at other media outlets,’ Irina said. And by night, as her friends have said, the journalist had to earn money knitting. Irina called the fines that threatened her ‘financial murder.”
In recent years, she lived under constant pressure. She was regularly summoned to the police and was always being fined for new administrative offences. According to her lawyer, all her publications were closely examined by operatives from the counter-extremism police unit. She did not plead guilty in any of the cases brought against her. However, the courts regularly fined her enormous sums which she had no means to pay.
We are certain that Irina’s suicide was caused by the never-ending harassment and pressure against her by state security structures. Only a person driven to the extremes of despair would commit public self-immolation. Irina was a strong person. Everyone who knew her says that. No one doubted that she had a reason to live and something to fight for. But for two years in a row she was consistently subjected to harassment. And they drove her to suicide.
A post on Facebook, a walk with a placard, publishing inaccurate texts because of a mistake in a source – these are all things for which no one should be prosecuted. Innocent people shouldn’t have to justify themselves, go to a court or answer far fetched questions or pay fines. No one should be subjected to humiliating searches of their own home in the dead of night. In Irina’s case, such pressures were a direct attack on the profession of journalist. Searches of journalists’ premises on account of the people they they write about directly violate the law (specifically, Article 144 of the Russian Criminal Code – ‘Obstructing the legitimate activities of a journalist’) and contradict the professional duties of a journalist ‘to maintain the confidentiality of information and (or) of the source’ (Law on the Media, Article 49).
Irina did not self-immolate out of weakness. She was stronger than the 12 men who burst into her home at six in the morning. No matter how painful it is to admit it, Irina quite deliberately decided on self-immolation. It is her appeal to all of us.
There are few enough independent journalists in the regions. These are people that citizens come to first of all with their problems, when they experience lawlessness and the arbitrary actions of the authorities and when nothing else has helped.
Irina, however. wrote about the lawlessness happening around her, she helped others, and cared deeply about the people and their problems that she wrote about. She took every single injustice and every single misfortune as though they were personal to her. She did this for the sake of others, to raise awareness about the horrific problems in the country, problems that not only affected her.
We demand an immediate investigation of the self-immolation of Irina Slavina and that those responsible for driving her to suicide be punished. Responsibility for the death of Slavina must be borne by all those who initiated investigations against her, signed official resolutions, handed down sentences, conducted the humiliating search. Everyone who deliberately turned her life into hell. It is unacceptable that those who use the law to kill should remain unpunished.
By this open letter we demand that the Ministry of Internal Affairs, the Investigative Committee and the Federal Prosecutor’s Office investigate the brutal crime of driving Irina Slavina to self-immolation. This crime must be investigated not by the local Nizhny Novgorod law enforcement bodies that might be complicit in Irina’s death, but by federal level bodies.
We urge journalists of all publications to tell Irina’s story. Write about this news, analyse the reasons, talk about Irina on air, and investigate the crimes which drove her to suicide. Irina wrote: ‘I ask you to blame the Russian Federation for my death.’ And our duty is to discover the reasons why this has happened. Let every single person in Russia remember and know what has happened.