Ilya Lozovsky is managing editor of Organized Crime and Corruption Reporting Project.
Standing stiffly in a metal defendant’s cage in a Moscow courtroom Saturday, Russian investigative journalist Ivan Golunov faced a chorus of clicking cameras and shouted questions.
“Vanya, do you know which investigation you’re being persecuted for?”
“Vanya, how are you feeling?”
Overcome by stress or exhaustion after nearly two days in detention, the young reporter could hardly answer, clearly on the point of tears.
Then a single voice stood out, offering not another inquiry but reassurance: “Vanya, everyone is with you. We love you.”
Golunov turned away and wiped his eyes.
“Vanya, everything will be okay. Look at me. Everything will be okay. I’ll do everything.”
On hearing the voice of Galina Timchenko, his executive editor at the independent Meduza news website, Golunov began to weep.
The scene was a poignant episode of the latest crisis to strike Russia’s small and beleaguered community of independent journalists. On his way to a meeting Thursday afternoon, Golunov was detained by plainclothes officers, brusquely searched and reportedly beaten after insisting on access to his lawyer (which he was denied for many hours). According to police, a search of his backpack and apartment turned up several packets of cocaine and mephedrone. He was charged with intent to distribute illegal drugs, although police have already admitted that the photos they released of an alleged narcotics lab in his apartment had been taken elsewhere.
Golunov and his lawyers have vigorously denied the charges, insisting that the drugs had been planted and accusing police of numerous violations during his detention. Fellow journalists describe his persecution as politically motivated, pointing to his impeccable reputation and his long list of critical stories, including a detailed investigation into how organized criminals and corrupt officials have dominated Russia’s funeral industry. In fact, according to several sources, it was another upcoming story on this theme that may have provoked Moscow police into going after him.
The weekend’s drama looks to be only the first salvo in an uneven battle between Russia’s almost totally unaccountable law enforcement apparatus and its few remaining independent media outlets. The stakes are high: If someone of Golunov’s stature can be brought down by spurious drug accusations, the prospects for any press freedom in Russia becomes slimmer than ever.
But the widespread revulsion at the baselessness of the charges offers hope. And independent Russian journalists are resisting in several remarkable ways.
The first signs were already evident Friday, when dozens of people showed up in front of the Moscow police headquarters to protest Golunov’s detention. Since “non-sanctioned demonstrations” in Russia usually lead to immediate arrests, protesters — many of whom were Golunov’s friends and colleagues — waited in long lines to hold "single pickets," each patiently waiting their turn to hold a sign demanding his release.
When the journalist was sentenced to two months’ house arrest rather than detention pending his trial, his supporters cheered a minor but important victory. His employer, Meduza — which operates out of Latvia — attributed this to an “unprecedented campaign of journalistic solidarity” and quickly followed up by making all of his investigative work available for republication by other outlets under a Creative Commons license. The more that Russian citizens appreciate Golunov’s role in exposing the corrupt systems that surround them, the thinking goes, the more pressure authorities will face to let him go.
Perhaps more striking, three major Russian newspapers not usually classified as opposition media — Vedomosti, RBC and Kommersant — went to press Monday with nearly identical front pages stating, “We are Ivan Golunov” and calling for an investigation into the charges against him. The editions have sold out in Moscow, and copies are on sale at exorbitant prices online.
Ivan Kolpakov, Meduza’s editor in chief, says the campaign is already bearing fruit. “We seem to have gone beyond the ‘bubble,’” he told me. “On the one hand, well-known TV presenters, musicians, artists, actors and public figures have expressed support for Golunov. On the other hand, taxi drivers and people on public transit are talking about him, too.”
Further actions, including a march Wednesday, are planned.
The obstacles are steep. Russian courts are notorious for having a nearly 100 percent conviction rate, and letting Golunov go free would also require senior heads to roll within the Interior Ministry, since his persecution would have to be acknowledged as a farce. This seems unlikely.
But it also bears noting that the simplistic narrative often found in the West — that of an all-powerful President Vladimir Putin personally directing the persecution of his hapless subjects — doesn’t seem to apply here. Golunov’s arrest took place even as the St. Petersburg International Economic Forum was underway in Russia’s northern capital, and a fracas of this kind serves only as an embarrassing distraction. The administration’s response has been somewhat muted, and even state television channels — notorious for toeing the Kremlin line — have come out in support of a thorough and fair investigation into the case. The opinion is widespread among Golunov’s colleagues that his persecutors are mid-level operators who may very well be incurring wrath within the Kremlin walls.
Needless to say, what happens next will be determined largely in Russia. But international attention matters, too. “Please don’t swat this story away,” Kolpakov said when I asked him what people in the West should know. “The whole world should know about the Golunov case.”