Several Russian media outlets have withdrawn their reporters from covering parliament's lower chamber after an Ethics Commission exonerated a senior lawmaker who is facing sexual harassment allegations from at least three journalists.
Meanwhile, a reporter for Current Time TV has alleged that Vladimir Zhirinovsky, a veteran lawmaker and frequent presidential candidate, groped and sexually accosted him in 2006. The accusation by the reporter, Renat Davletgildeyev, was met with an angry response by an official from Zhirinovsky’s Liberal Democratic Party of Russia (LDPR).
The incidents were the latest developments in an unusually public discussion among Russian media about sexual harassment involving lawmakers and officials, a discussion that some have likened to the #MeToo movement in the United States.
The outlets that withdrew their reporters from coverage of the lower chamber, the State Duma, include some of Russia's best-known media.
It came after days of scrutiny of the lawmaker, Leonid Slutsky, and questions of how the Duma would respond. Slutsky had earlier been accused of making crude, unwanted advances toward the reporters, including trying to kiss them and touching them inappropriately.
The reporters included Yekaterina Kotrikadze, a deputy editor with New York-based RTVI television; Darya Zhuk, a producer with independent Dozhd TV; and BBC Russian correspondent Farida Rustamova.
On March 21, the Duma Ethics Commission found that Slutsky had violated no "behavioral norms."
Aleksei Venediktov, the chief editor of the radio station Ekho Moskvy said the station "is disappointed with the parliamentary Ethics Commission's decision” and "considers the State Duma an unsafe place for journalists to work."
The station "is withdrawing its journalists from the State Duma," Venediktov wrote on Telegram a day after the ruling.
RTVI announced it would withdraw its correspondents from covering the Duma as well.The announcements followed similar statements from news agency RBC and Internet TV channel Dozhd.
The newspaper Kommersant and website Lenta.ru said they were halting all contacts with Slutsky.
Sergei Dorenko, editor of radio station Govorit Moskva, condemned the commission's ruling to clear Slutsky and called on all media outlets in the country to boycott coverage of the lawmaker.
Oksana Pushkina, a Duma deputy from the ruling United Russia party and a former journalist, expressed support for the outlets.
"The problem [of sexual harassment] exists in this country and it must be tackled through a legislation," she told state-run news agency RIA Novosti. "I will do everything that depends on me."
Commission Chairman Otari Arshba said the accusations against Slutsky were "selective, targeted, and planned,” and asserted they were timed to create controversy ahead of the March 18 election that handed President Vladimir Putin a new term.
Zhirinovsky, the longtime LDPR leader who has been in the Duma since 1993, came in a distant third in the vote.
Slutsky, 50, is also an LDPR member and is chairman of the chamber’s Foreign Affairs Committee.
In one of the exchanges in question, which was caught on audiotape, Slutsky is heard saying, "You don't want to kiss me, you've hurt my feelings," and later suggesting that the engaged journalist can be "his wife and my mistress."
Slutsky asked for forgiveness on Facebook on March 8, which Russia and other countries mark as International Women's Day. But he has denied wrongdoing and threatened to sue his accusers for defamation.
Duma speaker Vyacheslav Volodin, Putin's former deputy chief of staff, told a group of female journalists that if they believed it is "dangerous" for them to work in the legislature they should change jobs.
In a Facebook post and a later interview with Current Time, Davletgildeyev described the alleged incident involving Zhirinovsky, saying he was a reporter, about 20 years old, working for the news site Gazeta.ru, and reporting on the Miss Russia beauty contest.
Davletgildeyev said that Zhirinovsky had left the room where the contest was being held early and Davletgildeyev went after him to get a comment.
He said he conducted a short interview with Zhirinovsky, during which Zhirinovsky "pawed at my [buttocks] so much that my hands were trembling as they held the tape recorder."
"As he was giving me a comment, he began to behave in an indecent way, touching my hands, shoulders, and my neck…Sorry, not neck, I'll give him that," he said. "He also touched my lower body parts and then he left."
After, he said, Zhirinovsky’s aides or security guards approached him and tried to persuade him to go to a sauna belonging to Zhirinovsky’s political party.
"It seemed like a normal course of events for them. One of them even said: 'That’s what everyone does. Don’t be scared,'" Davletgildeyev said.
Current Time is a Russian-language TV channel produced by RFE/RL in collaboration with Voice of America.
Contacted by Current Time, Igor Lebedev, who is Zhirinovsky's son as well as deputy chairman of the party, refused to comment.
"I don't want to talk to you. What, I’m supposed to discuss your gay colleague with you? Have I fallen that low?" Lebedev said. "There is no problem of harassment in Russian society."
A spokeswoman for the party also declined to comment.