A free and independent press is essential to the functioning of a democratic society. It allows citizens to access information and hold their leaders accountable. Yet, journalists worldwide are increasingly facing perilous risks and even death, particularly those in authoritarian regimes. Last year, more than 363 journalists, more than ever recorded, were put behind bars for simply doing their jobs.
In the “Threats Against Journalists” series, the Human Rights Foundation (HRF) highlights the violence, intimidation, and harassment faced by journalists who refuse to be silenced by authoritarian regimes. Through this series, we explore attacks on journalists in Asia, Eastern Europe, and Latin America.
By Pavel Kutsevol, policy officer
Illustrations by Lucian French, designer
On July 20, 2016, a car exploded in the middle of Kyiv, Ukraine’s capital. Inside was Pavel Sheremet, a 44-year-old journalist who spent years working in Russia, Belarus, and Ukraine. Sheremet, originally from Belarus, had written articles critical of authoritarian governments for years and received constant threats. His death — likely orchestrated by Belarusian officials — shocked the human rights community and highlighted the dangers of being an independent journalist in Eastern Europe. The then-president of Ukraine, Petro Poroshenko, even promised to find Sheremet’s killers.
Such occurrences are not rare in Eastern Europe. According to the Committee to Protect Journalists, 38 journalists have been killed in Russia alone since 1992. These cases range from high-profile investigative journalists, such as the assassination of prominent journalist Anna Politkovskaya, who covered atrocities committed in Chechnya and was killed in her apartment building on Oct. 7, 2006 (Vladimir Putin’s birthday), to lesser-known cases, like the poisoning of Yuri Shchekochikhin, an investigative journalist with Novaya Gazeta who investigated high-level corruption and abuse by Russia’s Federal Security Service (FSB).
One of the cases Shchekochikhin was investigating at the time was FSB’s alleged involvement in apartment bombings in 1999, when a series of explosions destroyed buildings and killed hundreds of people in cities across Russia. Russian officials immediately blamed Chechen rebels — without providing any evidence — and launched a second deadly Chechen campaign shortly after, seeking revenge for the attacks. There was a lot of credible evidence, however, suggesting that the attacks were organized by federal officials — including undercover FSB agents arrested at one of the buildings — to shore up Putin’s approval ratings and unite the Russian people against a common enemy. There were also other investigations Shchekochikhin led, all of which hampered the government’s ability to act with impunity.
In June 2003, Shchekochikhin suddenly fell ill. Within a few days, his condition rapidly deteriorated, leading to organ failure, difficulty breathing, and skin peeling off his body. Just 12 days later, Shchekochikhin died a slow and painful death. Doctors said he suffered a reaction to an “unknown allergen” and designated his medical records as “classified.” Journalists from Novaya Gazeta later uncovered that Shchekochikhin was poisoned with the same substances used by the FSB to murder Chechen rebels in the North Caucasus.
The Kremlin uses methods beyond assassinations to stifle the independent press. In March 2023, Evan Gershkovich, an American journalist who covers Russia for The Wall Street Journal, was arrested by Russian officials on charges of espionage. He was placed in the infamous Lefortovo prison, where the Stalin regime tortured countless in the 1930s. This is the first case in almost 40 years in which Russia has charged a foreign reporter with spying. In 1986, the KGB arrested an American correspondent, Nicholas Daniloff, and subsequently exchanged him for a Soviet citizen arrested by the US FBI.
Gershkovich is now facing 20 years in prison. The Russian government will most likely try to swap him for a Russian citizen — or multiple citizens — arrested in the US. No matter how this saga ends, Gershkovich’s arrest, most likely authorized on a senior level, signals a new era for the Russian government. They’re again resorting to terrorist tactics — such as hostage-taking — in order to squeeze out concessions from a geopolitical opponent.
In neighboring Belarus, where press freedom is virtually nonexistent, several of Alexander Lukashenko’s opponents and journalists critical of the regime mysteriously disappeared in the late 1990s and early 2000s. Among them was Dzmitry Zavadski, a 27-year-old journalist who disappeared and was most likely killed in July 2000. His body was never found, and the official investigation into his disappearance was ultimately suspended. His friend and fellow journalist, Pavel Sheremet, was the first to raise the alarm over his death and was killed 16 years later in Kyiv.
In 2004, a group of unknown individuals stabbed and killed Veronika Cherkasova, another independent Belarusian journalist, in her own apartment. Nothing was stolen from her apartment. Cherkasova’s work wasn’t focused on politics, and while the regime might not have directly authorized her death, it still highlights the flagrant unwillingness and inability of the Belarusian regime to protect independent journalists. There have been countless assassinations of journalists, and each time, the Belarusian government has failed to conduct meaningful investigations.
In 2020, Lukashenko’s regime authorized another wave of repression following widespread anti-government protests. As of 2023, at least 36 Belarusian journalists remain behind bars. This includes Ksenia Lutskina, a former correspondent for the state broadcaster Belteleradio (BT). She is currently suffering from a brain tumor and her health has rapidly deteriorated while in prison. Despite numerous pleas from relatives and human rights activists, prison officials haven’t given her any meaningful help. Lutskina and other journalists arrested for covering the 2020 protests, just like other political prisoners, also wear yellow tags that differentiate them from other prisoners.
In 2021, the website Tut.by, once the biggest news outlet in Belarus, was shut down by the government, and its senior staff was arrested. In 2023, Marina Zolotova, chief editor of Tut.by, was sentenced to 12 years in prison. Other independent outlets, such as Nasha Niva newspaper, Belsat news channel, and Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty, were labeled “extremist” by the Belarusian KGB. Any person sharing these outlets’ content can face years in prison.
Despite dozens of news outlets and non-government organizations shutting down in the last three years, the government continues to attack independent journalists. In March of this year, in what seemed like a coordinated countrywide attack launched by the regime, multiple journalists were arrested in the span of one week. In 2022, the Committee to Protect Journalists (CPJ) ranked Belarus as the fifth largest jailer of journalists globally.
These relentless attacks resulted in a drastic reduction of independent journalism in Belarus. Most journalists now either work clandestinely, trying not to attract the regime’s attention, or flee the country to avoid arrest. Once abroad, these people often struggle to sustain themselves financially or, if fleeing after detention, face lingering health issues. Since the start of the latest crackdown in 2020, more than 400 journalists have fled the country.
Ultimately, a lack of robust, independent journalism corrodes the ability to keep governments and their abuses in check, and undermines citizens’ ability to access diverse viewpoints in the informational sector.
Pavel Kutsevol is a policy officer at the Human Rights Foundation, overseeing Eastern Europe and former Soviet republics.
Journalism is one of the world’s most dangerous professions. Under authoritarian regimes, dictators ceaselessly attempt to silence the media with violence, harassment, and arbitrary detention. And still, journalists continue to risk their lives to uncover and report the truth. HRF stands in solidarity with journalists who write truth to power.