Russian journalists investigating the activities of a secretive group of Russian mercenaries in Africa and the Middle East were subject to physical threats and harassment, their editor-in-chief said.
“Proekt,” an independent Moscow-based online news outlet specialising in investigations, started publishing a series of articles in March looking into the role of a shadowy group of mercenaries known as Wagner.
Around the same time editor-in-chief Roman Badanin said his journalists received emailed threats of physical retribution for their work.
Unknown people tried to break into staff personal accounts on Facebook, the Telegram messenger service and Google mail, he said, and one journalist was followed by an unknown man who filmed her.
“This is an attempt to make us nervous, to distract from our journalistic work, to make it clear we’re under surveillance and they’re watching us,” Badanin told Reuters in an interview.
Badanin could not prove who was behind the harassment, which peaked last month when Proekt ran an investigation into Wagner’s apparent activities in Libya.
Proekt did not complain to the police instead speaking out publicly to draw attention to the threats.
People with ties to the Wagner group previously told Reuters it carried out clandestine combat missions on the Kremlin’s behalf in Ukraine and Syria. Russian authorities deny Wagner contractors carry out their orders.
The Wagner group was in the spotlight last year when three Russian journalists were killed in Central African Republic while investigating.
Russian private military contractors use a defence ministry base in southern Russia with barracks built by a company linked to businessman Yevgeny Prigozhin, Reuters reported in April.
The United States imposed sanctions on Prigozhin after it accused him of meddling in its 2016 presidential election and the 2018 US congressional elections.
Prigozhin denied links to Wagner and also declined to comment on the US allegations, calling them a “private matter” for the US Treasury.
Asked if it was behind Proekt’s troubles, Concord Management and Consulting, Prigozhin’s main business, said by email: “If journalists are being persecuted or threatened they should phone 02,” the police emergency number in Russia.
Russia is regularly criticised by media freedom watchdogs who say attacks on journalists often go unpunished. The New York-based Committee to Protect Journalists says 28 journalists died in Russia since 2000.