Investigative journalist Ivan Golunov was released from house arrest after an unprecedented show of solidarity by Russian media outlets and some of Russia’s best-known celebrities. All charges against him were dropped for lack of evidence.
Russian Internal Affairs Minister Vladimir Kolokoltsev has also promised to fire two highly ranked Moscow police officers in connection with the case. The officials who arrested and allegedly beat Golunov will not be fired, but are to be placed on temporary leave pending an investigation.
The reporter for the independent Latvia-based Meduza news portal was arrested on 6 June on what the Justice for Journalists Foundation is saying were false charges of drug dealing. After being beaten in custody and detained for 12 hours without access to a lawyer, Golunov was placed under house arrest and was facing drug dealing charges that carry a potential sentence of 20 years in prison.
Russian police had initially published photographs which they claimed showed a drug lab in Golunov’s Moscow apartment. They later admitted the images had been taken in a different location and had nothing to do with the journalist.
— RSF (@RSF_inter) June 11, 2019
Golunov’s reporting has focused on corruption, illicit business practices, and crimes committed by those close to power in Moscow. His arrest is widely seen as the latest attempt to muzzle political dissent in the country.
The arrest sparked protests across Russia, and at Russian embassies in Berlin, London, Stockholm, Washington DC and other cities.
International press freedom organisations were quick to take up the call. Ricardo Gutiérrez of the European Federation of Journalists said, “We believe that the main purpose of this police operation is to silence him and intimidate all journalists investigating the corruption of Russian officials”.
Reporters Without Borders said it “hails the mobilisation of Russian civil society” and insisted that those who tried to set him up “must be judged”. The press freedom watchdog said it would remain mobilised for other journalists jailed in Russia.
#Russia, 2019. This is how the Moscow police respects a prominent journalist's defence rights: with a policeman listening to his conversation with his lawyer. Video @pchikov. #FreeIvanGolunov! pic.twitter.com/IwA1I140yD
— Johann Bihr (@JohannBihr) June 8, 2019
The three major Russian newspapers who published identical front page stories in support of Golunov — Kommersant, RBC and Vedomosti — have all faced previous attempts to censor their reporting.
Russia was ranked 83 out of 100 in the Freedom House global Press Freedom Report, where a score of 0 represents “most free”, and 100 “least free”. Much of the media in the country is controlled by the State.
This latest incident is another alarming example of the growing threats to journalists and media outlets worldwide, as authoritarian countries like Russia crackdown on independent media, and major democracies move further towards populism.