Outcry over investigative journalist harassed with drug offenses in Russia

New Wave of Repression in Russia: A court in Russia has placed a journalist with a history of investigating corruption under house arrest. Ivan Golunov was apprehended on Thursday (6 June) on suspicion of “illegal production or sale of drugs” and taken to court on Saturday after .being hospitalised with suspected head injuries. International Media Support (IMS) strongly condemns Golunov’s harassment and calls on the Russian authorities to drop the charges immediately and refrain from further harassment of journalists and media workers.

Ivan Golunov is an investigative journalist with Meduza, Russian independent media outlet. Golunov has become well-known in the journalistic circles for exposing corruption among Moscow’s city officials. Meduza’s CEO, Galina Timchenko, revealed that Golunov had received threats in connection to a major story he was working and that there is a “reason to believe he’s been targeted because of his work as a journalist.”

“The absurd charges against Golunov are a brazen assault on the fearless voices against corruption and injustice in Russia, yet another reminder of the price that journalists pay in this country for exposing corruption or simply accurately reporting on political issues. These charges should immediately be dropped, and Golunov should be free to continue his work”, said Gulnara Akhundova, IMS’ Head of Department for Global Response.

According to the Council of Europe’s platform for protection and safety of journalists, four grams of illegal substances had been found in Golunov’s rucksack. Authorities, however, refused to take samples from his fingers and assess whether he had been handling the identified substance. Golunov was denied access to legal counsel for over 12 hours and bore marks of physical blows on his body.

Golunov’s arrest has sparked tremendous solidarity and action both in Russia and internationally. Journalists and civil society actors in Russia and across the globe have expressed support for Golunov putting a spotlight on the ongoing harassment of investigative journalists and free press in Russia. Golunov has eventually been released from detention and placed under house arrest.

“What was supposed to be a great challenge to those who are fighting for the truth in Russia has, in fact, made them united. The Russian authorities may have created an enormously advanced system to stifle independent media, but no matter how far they have come in their repression, Golunov’s case has demonstrated that there will always be a push back and call for justice”, Akhundova said.

The legal action against Golunov is part of a persistent crackdown on freedom of expression in Russia. Russia is ranked 149th out of 180 countries in RSF’s 2019 World Press Freedom Index. The country’s atrocious press freedom record worsened further this year as authorities introduced laws that make “disrespect towards the state or society” punishable with imprisonment and “dissemination of fake news” punishable with sizeable fines, in addition, enabling authorities to block content without consulting a judge.

Furthermore, the Russian State Duma approved a bill which enables the Russian internet to operate independently from the World Wide Web in the event of emergency or security threat. The changes introduced in the adopted bill, pose a threat to human rights and freedoms in Russia. The bill contravenes standards on freedom of expression and privacy protected by the European Convention on Human Rights to which Russia is a party.

The adoption of the latter bills is part of a wider crackdown on freedom of expression in Russia, both online and offline. As thoroughly covered in the report published by PEN International, “Russia’s array of repressive laws severely restricts the right to freedom of expression, opinion and information.”

Impunity for crimes against journalists prevails in Russia, creating a curbing atmosphere for independent media. The majority of crimes against journalists remain unsolved regardless of pledges from high-level authorities, thus, perpetuating a stifling atmosphere for media plurality and investigative reporting.

To this end, IMS calls on the Russian government to take action to create an environment in which journalists can carry out their work without fear of reprisal, including through  withdrawing pieces of legislating curbing media freedom; putting an end to politically-motivated arrests and convictions;  ending physical, digital and psychological attacks on journalists and media workers and breaking the vicious circle of impunity by investigating the crimes against journalists.