Moscow -- Some of Russia’s top media outlets have declared a boycott on covering the country’s lower house of Parliament or have restricted their coverage there in protest after the body's ethics commission cleared a senior lawmaker of sexually harassing journalists, in a case that has drawn parallels with the #MeToo movement in the United States.
Most of Russia’s leading independent news agencies have signed onto the boycott in one form or another since the ethics commission on Thursday exonerated Leonid Slutsky, the head of the Parliament's international affairs committee, of forcing himself on three female reporters.
It was a remarkable show of solidarity and throws down an unusual challenge to authorities in a country where the media is heavily controlled by the Kremlin and where sexual harassment is rarely discussed -- and frequently dismissed as a liberal Western issue.
On Thursday, the Parliament, known as the Duma, responded to the boycott by saying it would revoke the parliamentary accreditations for those journalists taking part in it.
The scandal around Slutsky began last month when three female journalists accused him of making unwanted advances on them while negotiating interviews. Daria Zhuk a producer at TV Rain, Yekaterina Kotrikadze from RTVI, and the BBC Russian Service journalist Farida Rustamova have given detailed accounts of the incidents with Slutsky that they have said occurred at different times over the past few years.
“He asked me to come without a camera,” Kotrikadze said in a broadcast on RTVI, where she is now a deputy editor. “He brought me into his office, locked the door and tried to pin me against the wall and somehow kiss and touch me. I got away and ran.”
Rustamova's encounter with Slutsky, where allegedly touched the BBC reporter and asked her to be his mistress, was captured in a sound recording.
RBC, announcing its boycott, said in a statement the ethics commission's decision "in essence, admits the norm of the possibility of sexual harassment toward journalists by newsmakers. We do not agree with this approach."
Contrary to what is often believed in the U.S., Russia has an influential if heavily pressured independent press. Russian state media has not joined the boycott.
The case has also highlighted how attitudes to gender and sexual harassment have become to be perceived as another front for Russian authorities in their clash with the West. Ahead of the enquiry, Russian MPs suggested that they saw the case as an occasion to resist the #MeToo movement spreading from the US and Europe. Russian officials have suggested they regard #MeToo as political correctness run amok and the product of overly liberal attitudes to gender they argue are alien to Russia.
“I don’t know if the tendency that arose in the U.S. because of the scandal with Weinstein is catching on here, but I hope not,” Valery Gartung, a member of the ethics committee was quoted by the news site Meduza before the enquiry. “You know, if you refuse to give a woman attention, she might be offended. If a man does show her attention, she could also be offended. Where’s the line? It’s a very intimate question.”
The Latvia-based Russian news site, Meduza, released a leaked audio recording of the ethics committee hearing in which the MPs appeared to attack the journalists, talking over them and implying they had invented the allegations or coordinated them to hit the election. The commission's member repeatedly asked why it had taken the women till now to make the allegations. In the recording, (also transcribed in English here) one female MP appeared to suggest Rustamova had invited Slutsky's advances.
Last month, a top Kremlin aide, Vladislav Surkov, wrote an article in the Valentine's Day edition of the magazine Russian Pioneer, in which he said he believed a "matriarchal democracy" would soon dominate in the West and that it meant the "sunset of Europe."