Russia Authorities Target Journalists in Protest Crackdown

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The Editor-in-Chief of Mediazona, Sergey Smirnov, in front of Pskov Regional Court, after the trial of Russian journalist Svetlana Prokopyeva, Pskov, Russia, July 6 2020.
© 2020 Alexander Koriakov/Kommersant Photo/Sipa via AP Image

Today, a court in Moscow sentenced Sergei Smirnov, editor-in-chief of the independent “Mediazona” news outlet, to 25 days in detention for “repeated violation” of the public assemblies’ rules.

His offense? Retweeting a humorous tweet about Smirnov’s physical resemblance to the leader of a Russian rock band. The tweet featured a picture of the rock artist, stating he was pro-Navalny, and contained the date and the time of the January 23 protest.

The “repeated” nature of the violation was based on an earlier charge that Smirnov had attended a  peaceful protest held by fellow journalists in support of detained colleagues.

Initially, police attempted to charge Smirnov with traffic interference during the January 23 protest, but had to drop it because he didn’t actually attend that protest.

The judge rejected the defense motions to have the evidence examined, including a linguistic examination of the tweet in question.

While Smirnov’s detention is not a direct result of his journalistic work, it is clearly related. At least 19 Russian media outlets and several international groups demanded his release.

Smirnov’s detention is also part of a pattern of abuse against independent journalists covering the recent protests. Before and during the protests, police have targeted many journalists wearing yellow vests or colorful armbands clearly labeled “Press” and wearing press cards. Social media is full of images of police pushing, shoving, beating, and detaining these reporters while doing their jobs.

Another journalist, Dmitry Nikitin, was detained while covering last night’s protests, despite wearing his press vest and having his press card. He had to spend a night at the police station and was fined today for “interfering with traffic”. 

Russian authorities should stop targeting journalists either because they are covering the protests or if they express solidarity with protesters. Both are protected under the right to freedom of expression. Instead of targeting journalists, the authorities should hold accountable police who attack journalists and interfere with their work.