THE RUSSIAN AUTHORITIES have developed a sophisticated system of restrictions and reprisals to crush public protests and suppress reporting of them by journalists and independent monitors, Amnesty International says in a new report published on 24 November.

Since the full-scale invasion of Ukraine in February, restrictions have increased on the anti-war movement which virtually precludes public protest and any sharing of information about it.

The 49-page report – “You will be arrested anyway” – documents dozens of cases of unlawful obstruction of journalists’ and monitors’ work during public protests, including arbitrary arrests, use of force, detentions and heavy fines.

Reprisals against media workers and monitors escalated soon after the February invasion, with new legislation on 4 March restricting the right to freedom of expression. At the time of writing, the authorities have initiated criminal proceedings against at least nine journalists and bloggers under the offence of “disseminating false information about the Russian Armed Forces” (Article 207.3 of the Criminal Code). Some media outlets and journalists have also been penalised under another new “offence” of “discrediting” the Russian Armed Forces deployed abroad (Article 20.3.3 of the Code of Administrative Offences) after they shared information about the war in Ukraine.

Under the new legislation, a media report containing any anti-war message became a risk. In June and July, Vechernie Vedomosti, an independent media outlet in Yekaterinburg and its publisher, Guzel Aitukova, were fined 450,000 rubles (£600) for the publication of a partially-blurred photo of anti-war stickers and of other visuals opposing the invasion. 

In two other cases, several members of the news teams at Dovod, an independent online media outlet in Vladimir, and Pskovskaya Guberniya, a newspaper in Pskov, were targeted for their coverage of anti-war protests. On 5 March, police searched the homes of Dovod’s editor-in-chief Kirill Ishutin and three other journalists. On the same day, police and special riot police broke into the office of Pskovskaya Gubernia, conducted searches and confiscated computers, phones and other equipment as part of an administrative case involving the “offence” of “discrediting” the Russian Armed Forces deployed abroad, which had been introduced into law a day earlier. According to an anonymous complaint, the newspaper had allegedly called for mass protests in its email newsletter. The next day, the newspaper announced that it had had to suspend its work until further notice.

Attacks on the press for covering the invasion of Ukraine and the activities of the anti-war movement have led to an exodus of hundreds of journalists from Russia. The independent TV channel TV Rain and the Novaya Gazeta newspaper were among those forced to halt their work. Radio station Ekho Moskvy, which served as a platform for some of the most critical voices in Russia, was also closed down by the authorities.

Natalia Prilutskaya, Amnesty International’s Russia Researcher, said: “We can see that the Russian authorities are hellbent not only on preventing and severely penalising any protest, however peaceful, but also on minimising any public awareness of it.

“Alongside severe legal restrictions on media freedoms already imposed, police are increasingly acting arbitrarily to prevent journalists and other media workers informing the public about the protests. As long as Russia’s government can strangle rights and freedoms within the country, and remains on the path of self-isolation, appalling abuses across the board will continue, including the crime of aggression against Ukraine.

“Close and effective scrutiny by the international community is required. In times as dark as these it is paramount to extend a helping hand to beleaguered Russian civil society and independent media, to help those who monitor and report abuses within the country and to tell the world about them.”

Continuation of earlier repression

According to the independent Union of Journalists and Media Workers (which was closed by a court order in September), at least 16 reporters were arrested within a week after mass protests erupted on 23 January 2021 against the jailing of Aleksei Navalny. Seven staff members of the Committee Against Torture, a prominent Russian human rights NGO, were arbitrarily arrested, in some cases with force, while monitoring the protests. In many of these and other cases, media workers and protest monitors stood trial for “participation in an unauthorised public assembly” and were issued with fines or sentenced to 10 days or longer terms of so-called administrative detention.

Suppressing anti-war reporting and protests

Over recent years, the Russian authorities have set up a legislative system which restricts freedom of expression and severely elevates the risks faced by observers, journalists and other media workers reporting on public assemblies. The law requires journalists at protests to wear “clearly visible insignia of a mass media representative”. However, police have increasingly made additional demands, including for “editorial assignment letters” or passports from media workers covering public assemblies. The authorities have warned media workers against “participation” in upcoming protests, and have arbitrarily arrested journalists before, during and after rallies they reported from. In many cases, arrests were carried out with excessive and unlawful force which could amount to torture and other ill-treatment.

* Read: “You will be arrested anyway” here.

* Source: Amnesty International