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Editor of liberal Russian media quits over sexual harassment claims

November 9, 2018

The editor-in-chief of Meduza, one of Russia’s top liberal media outlets, resigned on Friday in a rare sexual harassment scandal that caught the publication off guard and divided its supporters.

“This is the only way to halt the crisis surrounding the editorial team and minimise the reputational damage,” the independent news website quoted its chief editor Ivan Kolpakov and co-founder as saying.

His resignation is highly unusual in Russia, where the Western #MeToo movement has largely failed to take off and rampant sexual harassment is often seen as a joke rather than a problem.

Controversy first erupted last month when Meduza said 34-year-old Kolpakov would be suspended for two weeks after he was accused of groping an employee’s wife at a party in October.

A heavily inebriated Kolpakov pinched the woman’s bottom, saying: “You are the only one at this party who I can harass and nothing would happen to me for that,” Meduza said.

Kolpakov said at the time he did not remember anything but publicly apologised for his “ugly” behaviour.

He was however reinstated by the board of directors, which said it was a one-off incident and the editor had been punished enough. The employee whose wife was harassed later quit.

There is no legislation that protects women against sexual harassment at work or home in Russia.

The only senior Russian official to be publicly accused of harassment, MP Leonid Slutsky, dismissed allegations earlier this year that he groped journalists and made lewd comments.

A parliamentary ethics panel later cleared his name and Slutsky claimed the scandal had actually “boosted my gravitas”.

Meduza, which is based in EU member Latvia to circumvent censorship, frequently writes about gender-based violence and harassment.

The site’s management however admitted it had no guidelines on how to deal with such offences and found itself in unchartered waters.

‘Girls leave, bosses stay’

When Kolpakov resigned, he said he was only doing so to protect the online publication from the growing controversy.

“I categorically refuse to accept the charges of harassment,” he wrote on Facebook.

“I am leaving because it hurts me to see you destroy what I’ve built,” he said of his critics.

Kolpakov quit after his reinstatement by the board sparked further controversy.

But many said the incident had been blown out of proportion.

Mitya Aleshkovsky, a prominent Russian journalist and social activist, said that Kolpakov’s actions could be described as “a bad joke, hooliganism (or) unworthy behaviour.

“You can call it what you like, but this is not harassment,” he said on Facebook.

Another supporter, posting on Facebook, also said he was sorry to see Kolpakov quit. “Come to Siberia, there are nice gals here,” he wrote.

But many liberal Muscovites and foreign journalists said Meduza had discredited itself by refusing to sack its editor-in-chief immediately after the incident.

“If Meduza is going to style itself as the most progressive Russian media they need to do a hell of a lot better,” Max Seddon, a Moscow-based reporter for The Financial Times, said on Twitter this week.

Elena Kostyuchenko, a journalist with Russia’s top opposition newspaper Novaya Gazeta, said on Thursday that Kolpakov should be allowed to work at Meduza but not as chief editor.

She said the incident was emblematic of the “toxic” environment at many Russian media.

“This is a standard story,” she wrote before Kolpakov resigned. “Girls leave…bosses stay.”

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Dispatches from AFP concerning freedom of information, censorship and news coverage in regions where independent media is under threat.