https://www.rferl.org -By Robert Coalson
A man wearing a press vest holds a microphone as police detain a protester during a rally in support of jailed Russian opposition leader Aleksei Navalny in St. Petersburg on January 31.
On the eve of a second wave of national mass protests in support of jailed opposition leader Aleksei Navalny, Russian police detained Sergei Smirnov, editor in chief of the independent news outlet Mediazona, outside his Moscow home as he left to take a walk with his small son.
In a widely shared video, the boy can be seen watching stoically, even smiling, as Smirnov asks the arresting officer in plainclothes to put on a mask against the coronavirus and telephones his wife to come and take care of the child.
By the time the January 31 protests were over, at least 82 journalists had been detained in cities across the country, according to the Open Media website, which is funded by exiled opposition businessman Mikhail Khodorkovsky, citing the nonstate Union of Journalists and Media Workers.
A protest and police-response monitor, OVD-Info, put the number of journalists detained at 91.
The Union of Journalists said 21 of the journalists were detained in Moscow and 10 in St. Petersburg. In all, the union documented 104 violations of the rights of journalists in connection with the January 31 protest, including 16 cases in which police visited journalists ahead of the demonstration to “warn” them against covering the event.
“The arrest and detention of Smirnov and dozens of other journalists is an attempt to intimidate and silence Russia’s independent media during a moment of national upheaval,” Polina Sadovskaya, Eurasia program director of PEN America, said in a statement condemning the detentions by the government of President Vladimir Putin. “In attempting to intimidate and silence the press, Putin’s government exposes its own fear of those who report the truth.”
The detentions came in the wake of a similar sweep during the first wave of protests on January 23, during which the Union of Journalists and Media Workers and the Russian Union of Journalists documented 52 violations of the rights of journalists in 17 different cities. Sixteen journalists were reported detained in St. Petersburg.
The International Press Institute on January 25 condemned those detentions and said they were “yet another stain on the Russian government’s dismal press freedom record and a stark example of the tactics used by the security forces to suppress media coverage of protests critical of the Kremlin.”
The crackdown on journalists during the Navalny protests follows a pattern developed by the authorities in response to a wave of demonstrations that broke out last summer in the Far Eastern city of Khabarovsk, said local journalist Tatyana Khlestunova. Those protests, which continue to the present, aim to support arrested former Khabarovsk regional Governor Sergei Furgal, a popular figure who many locals believe was removed at the behest of the ruling United Russia party.
Khabarovsk was hit particularly hard in the latest preemptive sweep of journalists. Two journalists were detained on January 22. Two others got the knock on January 29 and two more the following day. On January 31 itself, at least five journalists were detained covering the protest in Khabarovsk — Daniil Kulikov, Roman Lazukov, Yekaterina Ishchenko, Aleksandra Teplyakova, and Maria Nuikina.
However, Khlestunova noted in an interview with the Siberia Desk of RFE/RL’s Russian Service, local journalists have faced detention and administrative charges since the Furgal protests began in July.
“Now we can speak of a ‘carousel’ here,” Khlestunova said. “They are detained; then there is a hearing while they are held in pretrial detention; then the court gives them a fine or a jail term; then as soon as they are released, they are grabbed again and placed back on the carousel — more case reports, more pretrial detention, another hearing. This has happened to me.”
Officers from the Interior Ministry’s notorious Center E anti-extremism division are constantly monitoring the Internet, Khlestunova said.
“As far as I can tell, since they can’t find the organizers of the [Furgal] protests because there weren’t any, they just began looking for the most active people. But they arrested them and still the protests continued…. So they start detaining anyone carrying signs and that doesn’t help. So they set their sights on journalists. If you are wearing a press card, you are automatically on the list of people to be watched.”
Khlestunova connects the crackdown with the upcoming elections to the State Duma, Russia’s lower parliament chamber, to be held by mid-September, which are seen as a major test of the legitimacy of Putin’s continued rule.
“Preparations for the September elections are under way,” she said. “They are getting ready to push all the active people — activists or journalists — aside if they present a danger for their election campaign. Once we have been convicted administratively several times, we can now be put away for several years or, at the very least, subjected to intimidation measures.”
Shortly before her arrest on November 7, Khlestunova called on social media for more citizen’s journalism.
“It is crucial that people know what is going on,” she wrote. “If journalists are under pressure, then everyone must learn how to do livestreams and post information. Post a livestream from wherever you are — from the window of your house or from the sidewalk. If you see a demonstration, post about it on social media so that the country will know. We are being arrested — so everyone must become a blogger.”
With reporting by RFE/RL’s Russian Service and Current Time
Robert Coalson is a senior correspondent for RFE/RL who covers Russia, the Balkans, and Eastern Europe.