MOSCOW (AP) — A Russian radio journalist who narrowly survived a stabbing attack last month said in an interview with The Associated Press on Wednesday that the attacker was intent on killing her and had planned it.
The Oct. 23 assault on Tatyana Felgenhauer, a top host and deputy editor-in-chief at Ekho Moskvy, brought into the spotlight a growing wave of violence against Russian journalists. In most cases, the incidents were not investigated.
Felgenhauer spent days in intensive care and hours in a medically induced coma after she was stabbed in the throat by an attacker who walked into at the station’s offices in central Moscow last month.
While Ekho Moskvy is majority-owned by the media arm of the state-controlled Gazprom natural gas giant, its programs have often been critical of the government, angering many in Russian political and business circles. Its hosts and journalists have previously reported receiving death threats which were largely played down as mere pranks.
The London-based Index on Censorship, which monitors freedom of expression, has documented 35 incidents of physical assault and injury and three journalists killed this year in Russia, up from 34 attacks and two deaths in the same period last year.
The impunity for the attackers is creating a toxic environment for journalists in Russia, Ekho Moskvy’s editor-in-chief Alexei Venediktov told the AP.
“In Russia in the past 17 years if we talk about (President Vladimir) Putin’s Russia, so many people have been killed, maimed, attacked and threated,” he says. “But that’s not the main problem: the problem is these attacks go uninvestigated. The problem is that the justice system is sloppy about treating attacks on journalists.”
Ksenia Larina, a host at Ekho Moskvy, fled Russia shortly after the attack on Felgenhauer because of security concerns, a month after Yulia Latynina, arguably the station’s biggest star, fled Russia after her car was set on fire.
Investigators identified Felgenhauer’s attacker as 48-year-old Boris Grits, who has Russian and Israeli citizenship. He is in custody and his testimony released by police suggests that he might be mentally unstable.
After he was detained, Grits told investigators he had been in “telepathic contact with Felgenhauer” for five years. In a brief video of his interrogation released by Moscow police, he claimed the journalist was “haunting” him.
Reports suggest that the attack was premeditated. To get into the building, the assailant, who had a floor plan of Ekho Moskvy, sprayed gas in the face of a security guard at the entrance on the ground floor then went up to the 14th floor, where the station’s studios are.
Pressed by rights activists, Putin rejected suggestions that the attack on Felgenhauer was because of her critical reporting, calling the attacker a “sick man.”
Felgenhaeur told the AP on Wednesday that she is convinced that Grits was not deranged and knew what he was doing.
“I’m confident that he is sane, he had planned it very carefully,” said Felgenhauer, who was wearing a scarf to hide the wounds. “He struck with determination.”
Although doctors say the journalist still has to go through at least a two-month course of rehabilitation before she can come back on air, Felgenhaeur made a brief appearance on Monday just after she was discharged from a hospital.
She said that while she had worries about coming to the very place where she was attacked, the visit was in a way therapeutic. “The main feeling I had that day was joy, joy that I was back at work, on the best morning show and that I was able to hug everyone,” she said.
The attack on Felgenhauer came two weeks after a state-owned television station targeted her. State TV channel Rossiya 24 claimed that Ekho Moskvy was paid for “destabilizing society” ahead of Russia’s presidential election in March. The piece singled out Felgenhauer and the co-host of their morning show, and accused the station of “selling information weapons at an affordable price.”
Ekho Moskvy is working to boost security measures, and has petitioned investigators to look into a possible link between the attacker and the smear report, Venediktov said Wednesday.
The case file that the station’s lawyers have access to suggests that the attacker had an accomplice, he said.
“There are several weird elements in this case … that testify to the fact that he knew something that he won’t speak about … and that he had accomplices,” Venediktov said.
The station has analyzed calls, text messages and messages left on its website and social media accounts and found an “abnormal” number of threats to Felgenhauer the morning after the smear piece about her came out, Venediktov said.
Ekho’s corridors were busy Wednesday, and the guest room where Felgenhauer was attacked had no traces of the horrific scenes a month earlier. But the mood was wary.
“(We feel) relief because Tanya was four millimeters away from death,” Venediktov said. The attacker’s knife missed the vital organs just by a scratch. “There is also anxiety because a journalist was attacked and nearly killed at her workplace.”
The station’s editor-in-chief, who has been a frequent object of smear campaigns and threats and who has employed a security detail for a decade, blames himself for not seeing the gravity of the situation earlier.
“This is my responsibly and this is where I have failed Tanya: I did not see that they moved the focus from me to her,” he said. “This is torturing me.”