By Jen E. Adams
It’s almost impossible to imagine the level of desperation one must reach in order to commit suicide by setting themselves on fire. Self-immolation is largely considered one of the most extreme methods of protest known to humanity, and has been used as a tool of political dissent to bring attention to some of the most flagrant abuses of human rights – religious oppression, authoritarianism and, now, repression of independent media.
On October 2, Irina Slavina, editor-in-chief of the independent news website Koza.Press, wrote a final Facebook post – “For my death I ask you to blame the Russian Federation”, then, in front of the Russian Interior Ministry, sitting beside a monument dedicated to law enforcement, she set herself on fire.
Her death marked the final blow in a long battle between Slavina and Russian authorities — highlighting the ongoing war of suppression on independent media by the Russian State. But the most recent acts of intimidation — the search of her apartment and seizure of her family’s electronic devices — were only the latest in a years-long campaign to try and silence Slavina. According to her lawyer, friends and colleagues, Slavina had been subjected to smear campaigns, harassment and threats, and excessive fines for a host of trumped up charges.
Although Russian authorities have already refused to take any responsibility for the journalist’s death, stating that the most recent search and seizure had nothing to do with her suicide, it fits the pattern of systematic suppression of independent media, journalists and civil society generally that has been a hallmark of the increasingly totalitarian government since President Putin’s return to office in 2012.
While the Russian Federation isn’t the only country that uses the court system and law enforcement as tools to harass and suppress independent media, it is one of the most flagrant in its war on the free press, in direct contradiction with its own constitution that guarantees freedom of expression and prohibits censorship. Since 2012, Russia has increasingly targeted media with draconian laws and administrative fees that have resulted in the shuttering of all but a handful of independent outlets.
For independent journalists in the country, these tactics of suppression can result in severe anxiety and trauma, as well as a climate of fear for media as a whole. When it comes to Irina Slavina, it’s clear that the harassment hit its mark. The moment Slavina lit herself on fire, another independent voice was lost in Russia.
That she picked such an extreme method of protest, however, was truly an act of self-sacrifice and a call to action for all of us in the media freedom community to take up the work she left behind and demand accountability from and change in the Russian Federation.
Jen E. Adams is the former program officer for the Safety of Female Journalists Online campaign of the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe.