MOSCOW — Russian authorities dropped charges Tuesday against an investigative reporter whose arrest last week sparked protests and an unprecedented wave of media solidarity, with even pro-Kremlin outlets expressing doubt over the actions by police.
The announcement by Russian Interior Minister Vladimir Kolokoltsev represented a stunning reversal by Russia’s powerful security agencies. It marked a rare bow to public outrage that underscored the Kremlin’s sensitivity to shifts in public opinion.
And it was an unexpected victory for a journalism community that has seen media freedom recede for two decades in Russia.
Forensic tests found no proof that the journalist, Ivan Golunov, committed drug-related crimes, Kolokoltsev said. Several hours later, Golunov walked free, greeted by a throng of cameras and cheers.
“I likely have a lot of work to do to justify your trust and your belief in me,” Golunov told journalists after he was released. He then hugged his dog, a Dalmatian named Margot.
The police officers involved in Golunov’s arrest will be investigated, Kolokoltsev said. He called for the dismissal of two senior Moscow police officials, including the drug enforcement chief.
“I believe that every citizen’s rights must be protected, no matter their professional affiliation,” he said.
Golunov writes for Meduza, a popular Russian-language news outlet based in Latvia that often publishes stories critical of the Russian government.
The uproar over his arrest cut to the heart of the tug of war over influence and freedom in President Vladimir Putin’s Russia.
The security services have long appeared dominant, wielding the law to overpower business rivals and silence activists. But in detaining a respected and well-liked journalist, they seemed to have gone too far — suggesting that nearly two decades into Putin’s rule, there are still limits to state power.
“Russia’s Investigative Committee will determine the circumstances related to the unfounded detention of a journalist and the violation of his rights,” the government’s top investigative body declared.
When Golunov was formally charged Saturday with drug possession with intent to sell, it appeared that the police were preparing to lock up a journalist who had spotlighted official corruption.
The charges against him were so serious that, given the typical Russian practice, Golunov seemed likely to spend months in jail ahead of a trial in which prosecutors almost surely would get their way.
Golunov faced a possible sentence of 10 years or more. Framing people for drug-related crimes is a common way for influential figures across Russia to sideline opponents, rights activists claim.
But the evidence seemed so flimsy that even some staunchly pro-Kremlin television journalists rallied to Golunov’s defense. Celebrities released videos calling for his freedom.
Hundreds of journalists and supporters gathered outside the courthouse Saturday, their chants heard inside the courtroom. Protesters picketed the Moscow police headquarters, and major newspapers ran matching headlines that read: “I/We Are Ivan Golunov.”
Meduza Editor Ivan Kolpakov said Golunov may have been targeted because of an unpublished article. Golunov filed a draft of the story, Kolpakov said, just hours before being detained last week.
Work on the unpublished article will now continue, Meduza said after the charges against Golunov were dropped.
“This is only the beginning, and much work lies ahead to make sure that what happened is never repeated with anyone,” Kolpakov, Meduza CEO Galina Timchenko and other Golunov supporters said in a statement.
Russia’s overall media freedom picture is bleak, with the government controlling the main television channels and journalists at privately owned newspapers increasingly complaining of outright censorship.
But the Golunov episode shows that independent media — now mainly represented by online news outlets such as Meduza — remains a powerful force.
That’s a challenge for the Kremlin, which is navigating falling approval ratings for Putin amid growing rumblings of popular discontent. Last month, a spontaneous outpouring of anger in the Urals city of Yekaterinburg over the construction of a cathedral in a beloved city park led to an intervention from Putin and suspension of the plans.
Pro-Kremlin journalists joined their independent colleagues in celebrating Golunov’s release, some of them using the incident to argue that true justice is possible in Putin’s Russia. State-run TV channels gave the decision to free Golunov prominent coverage.
The outcome of the case reflects “how things work,” Margarita Simonyan, editor of pro-Kremlin television network RT, posted on Twitter. “And the direction things are going in — slowly, creakily, but forward.”