CPJ: Exiled Russian Journalists Suspected of Poisoning, Case Reopened

Published: 19 August 2023

Freedom of Press Speech International human rights and media freedom watchdogs warn that almost all independent media have been banned, blocked and/or declared “foreign agents” or “undesirable organizations” in Russia since the country launched the war against Ukraine. (Photo: Narih Lee, Flickr, License)

By Erika Di Benedetto

The Committee to Protect Journalists (CPJ) urged German and Georgian authorities on Wednesday to investigate the alleged poisoning of two Russian exiled journalists covering Russia's full-scale invasion of Ukraine.

An investigation case was closed in May 2023 but was reopened in July, as reported by the news outlet Meduza.

According to a report by the independent news website, The Insider, both journalists, Elena Kostyuchenko and Irina Babloyan, had been suffering from unexplained health issues since October 2022 and suspected poisoning as the cause.

Elena Kostyuchenko, a seasoned reporter who had worked with the independent Russian newspaper Novaya Gazeta — now replaced by Novaya Gazeta Europe — joined the independent outlet Meduza in September 2022.

Irina Babloyan, on the other hand, was previously associated with the now-closed broadcaster Ekho Moskvy and currently works for Zhivoy Gvozd, an outlet established by former Ekho Moskvy staff.

Kostyuchenko's health began to deteriorate on October 18, 2022, following her visit to Munich, Germany, where she had sought a Ukrainian visa to report on the ongoing war.

She started to experience intense migraines, debilitation, difficulty breathing, and feelings of queasiness. Additionally, she endured swelling in different regions of her body, coupled with a reddened appearance on her hands' palms and the soles of her feet.

Babloyan's symptoms began on October 25, 2022, in Tbilisi, Georgia, and were very similar to Kostyuchenko’s.

She also suffered from severe weakness, dizziness, swelling, and redness in her palms and the soles of her feet.

Both journalists underwent toxin tests at Berlin's Charité hospital. However, Kostyuchenko’s results have been inconclusive, and Babloyan’s blood samples were lost, and she never received the results of any tests performed on them.

Both journalists promptly reported their symptoms to German authorities, leading to extensive questioning by the police.

However, the investigations into their cases have faced setbacks, with Kostyuchenko's case being closed in May 2023 due to a lack of evidence.

Nevertheless, German authorities reopened the case in July.

Babloyan also underwent police questioning in July, where she expressed her belief that her journalism activities might have made her a target for poisoning.

Experts interviewed by The Insider emphasized that Kostyuchenko's symptoms were highly indicative of poisoning and could not be attributed to any other cause. Similarly, Babloyan's symptoms were deemed more likely to be the result of poisoning rather than an illness.

Both Kostyuchenko and Babloyan have extensively reported on Russian politics and the full-scale invasion of Ukraine by their home country.

“Reports that Russian journalists Elena Kostyuchenko and Irina Babloyan may have been poisoned in Germany and Georgia are extremely alarming and must be investigated at once,” said Carlos Martinez de la Serna, CPJ’s program director. “German and Georgian authorities should treat these allegations with the utmost seriousness and do all they can to safeguard the lives of journalists living in exile.”

Babloyan recently resubmitted blood samples for analysis, according to The Insider.

In March 2022, prior to her trip to Mariupol, Ukraine, Kostyuchenko received a warning from an anonymous colleague stating that Chechen units — armed groups from the Chechnya region — of the Russian Federal Guard had been instructed to assassinate her, she told Meduza.

On the same day, a source from Ukrainian military intelligence informed Kostyuchenko that unidentified assailants were making preparations to kill a journalist from Novaya Gazeta.

Novaya Gazeta newspaper closed in 2022 and, since its start in 1993, according to CPJ, has tragically witnessed the murders of “at least six of its journalists and contributors due to their work.”