Russia's MeToo Moment Puts Lawmakers in Focus Amid Media Boycott

(Bloomberg) -- Russia may be having its MeToo moment amid a backlash over the decision of a parliamentary ethics committee to dismiss sexual harassment allegations against a senior legislator.

Russian media organizations, including Kommersant, Vedomosti and RBC dailies, Echo Moskvy radio, TV Rain, RTVI and Znak.com, said they’d either boycott the lower house of parliament or refuse coverage of the deputy, Leonid Slutsky, and members of the State Duma committee that cleared him of any breach of ethics.

Three women journalists accused Slutsky of sexually harassing them, including BBC Russian reporter Farida Rustamova who produced a recording of the encounter in which the married deputy pleaded with her to become his mistress. Daria Zhuk, a producer for TV Rain, said Slutsky tried to kiss and touch her when he was invited to take part in a broadcast at the online channel’s studio.

Despite such evidence, the ethics committee ruled Wednesday that Slutsky had not violated standards of behavior. He’s denied acting improperly. The committee’s ruling also accused the women of timing their accusations to coincide with Russia’s presidential elections as part of “planned actions” to discredit Slutsky, who’s head of the Duma’s international relations committee. Slutsky didn’t respond to a phone call seeking comment.

While sexual harassment complaints brought down powerful men in the U.S. and Europe in recent months, and triggered an online protest movement under the MeToo hashtag, the backlash from media organizations is a rare protest against sexism in Russia. Many Russian women say they’re routinely the targets of harassment at work but can do little to prevent it, while a strongly male-dominated culture makes it hard for victims to get a sympathetic hearing.

Cancel Accreditation

The Kremlin distanced itself from the controversy, with presidential spokesman Dmitry Peskov declining on Thursday to comment on the committee’s decision. State Duma Speaker Vyacheslav Volodin, who previously urged reporters to find other jobs if they felt unsafe in the legislature, said Thursday that parliament will cancel the accreditation of reporters withdrawn by their media organizations under the boycott.

Lenta.ru said on Twitter that it’ll delete all articles about Slutsky except for those discussing the allegations. Kommersant said it’s “surprised and disappointed” by the committee’s ruling, while Vedomosti said the closing of ranks among Duma deputies threatened the “dignity and security” of all citizens as it demanded an impartial inquiry.

Russian authorities don’t want to give in under pressure because that would lead to other demands to tackle injustices, according to Alexei Makarkin, deputy director of the Moscow-based Center for Political Techologies. “Russian society is easily made to believe that Slutsky is a good patriot and the attacks on him are a part of a Western plot,” he said.

‘Couldn’t Ignore’

“We understood that withdrawing journalists would complicate our work, but nevertheless, we couldn’t ignore the approach that was spelled out yesterday by the ethics committee,” Elizaveta Golikova, co-chief of RBC’s editorial team, said by phone. “We insist on a thorough investigation of this issue.”

More than half of Russians have heard about the recent sexual harassment scandals in the U.S., according to a Public Opinion Foundation poll of 1,500 people published in December. More than 80 percent said allegations should be brought to court, while 57 percent agreed that those responsible for harassment should be punished.

Rustamova, the BBC reporter, told reporters after the hearing that she’d expected the committee’s response, though “of course I’m not satisfied with it.” The legislators “didn’t try to make sense of what had happened, they just shared with us their views on life and morals,” she said.

©2018 Bloomberg L.P.