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Prominent journalists flee Russia ahead of presidential election

Three prominent Kremlin-critical journalists have left Russia in recent months. They cite various reasons for leaving, but one event looms large behind their departures: the Russian presidential election next March.

Just months before Russia's March 2018 presidential elections, Kremlin-critical journalists are once again leaving the country. Within weeks of one another, three prominent journalists announced that they had left Russia and have no plans to return any time soon. More could follow.

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Olga Romanova: Left after raids on 'suspicion of embezzlement'

Olga Romanova recently made headlines in Russia with the announcement that she had been living in Germany since September. The renowned 51-year-old journalist and human rights activist used her Facebook account to tell followers that she left Russia this summer. The reason for her departure was a June raid on the offices of the non-governmental organization (NGO) Russia Behind Bars, which she founded and currently heads. The NGO fights for the rights of jailed Russians.

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The raid was carried out on suspicion of misappropriation of government funds. Romanova denies the charges but says she prefers to prove her innocence "in freedom." One can assume that she expected to be arrested and thus chose to leave the country instead.

Romanova was not immediately available for comment in response to a DW request. According to the Friedrich Naumann Foundation, a think tank associated with Germany's Free Democratic Party (FDP), Romanova is currently heading a project on freedom at the foundation's Berlin offices.

In mid-November, she will be an expert participant at an event co-sponsored by the foundation in cooperation with the Federal Foundation for the Reappraisal of the SED Dictatorship. The latter, formed by the German parliament in 1998, is dedicated to researching the fate of prisoners of the former East German Democratic Republic (GDR) and those in Russia today.

Olga Romanova, director of Russia Behind Bars (Fond Russland sitzen)

Olga Romanova, director of "Russia Behind Bars"

Romanova has worked for various print and television media outlets in Russia. The journalist was also active in the opposition protest movement in the winter of 2011/2012, which called for more democracy in Russia in the face of electoral manipulation. In 2012, Romanova was awarded the Gerd Bucerius Prize for Free Press in Eastern Europe at a ceremony in Hamburg.

Read also: Russia prepares to label US media as 'foreign agents'

Ksenia Larina: Left for safety after colleague attacked

The Romanova case made headlines because it seemed to point to a pattern. Just days before, on October 31, the editor-in-chief of the liberal radio station Echo of Moscow, Alexei Venediktov, announced that colleague and moderator Ksenia Larina had left Russia for safety reasons and that she would not return for at least six months – until after the upcoming presidential elections. A DW source confirmed the statement, though it remains unknown where the journalist currently is.

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For now, the 54-year-old Larina is moderating her show via Skype. One reason for her departure was a wave of aggression against liberal and Kremlin-critical journalists in Russian state-run television. One well-known moderator actually singled Larina out by name.

Another reason was a knife attack on Larina's colleague Tatyana Felgenhauer, who sustained injures to her neck. In an interview, Larina blamed state media for making such attacks possible. Journalist Felgenhauer remains in Moscow. During an interview about the incident, she said that the attacker did not give the impression of having been mentally ill. The perpetrator is currently being held in a Moscow jail cell, accused of attempted murder.

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Yulia Latynina: Left after car set on fire

The most prominent instance of a Russian journalist recently fleeing abroad came some two months ago. In mid-September, journalist and author Yulia Latynina announced that she and her family had left Russia for their own safety. The reason: Unidentified persons set the 51-year-old's car on fire in front of her Moscow apartment. Latynina had also been the victim of several attacks prior to the arson incident. This summer her home was attacked with a poisonous liquid.

Latynina also hosts her own weekly show at Echo of Moscow, as well as being a columnist for the renowned "Novaya Gazeta" newspaper. In 2004, she was honored with a special award from the Zeit-Stiftung, a charitable foundation associated with the German daily newspaper Die Zeit, which also awards the prize that Romanova received. For security reasons, Latynina did not announce where she and her family are now located.

Read also: Activists plead Russia for mercy after journalist attempts suicide

Not normal emigration

The three women are not the first journalists to have fled Russia over the last several years. Since Vladimir Putin returned to the presidency, and thus the Kremlin, in 2012, and especially in the wake of Russia's annexation of the Crimean peninsula in 2014, a number of journalists, opposition politicians and experts have decided to leave their homeland.

Russian journalist Julia Latynina (Imago/ITAR-TASS)

Russian journalist Julia Latynina would like to return to her homeland "as soon as the threat has passed"

"The most worrying aspect of these recent cases is the fact that now even prominent journalists at nationally known media outlets are being forced to flee because they feel so threatened," as Christian Mihr, director of Reporters without Borders in Berlin told DW. "That shows just how dangerous widespread impunity in Russia has actually become: The fact that perpetrators who violently attack journalists almost always go unpunished simply encourages others to do the same, and it deters journalists from conducting independent reporting."

Mihr adds that state television has also played a rather ignoble role in the situation, cultivating a climate of aggression by heaping hate and defamation on independent journalists. Romanova, Larina and Latynina all say they do not plan to remain abroad for good but rather that they hope to be able to return "as soon as the threat has passed," as Latynina puts it.

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