Human Rights Watch (HRW) has condemned the detention of five Russian journalists who engaged in peaceful, individual pickets in support of a threatened colleague.
It said the arbitrary detention on Wednesday “is a chilling demonstration of how repressive and abusive Russia’s new regulations on demonstrations are,” HRW said in a statement.
It urged the Kremlin to revise the new law on public rallies, which was the basis for the detentions, since it is “incompatible with Russia’s legal obligations to respect and uphold freedom of expression and assembly.”
The police detained the journalists in front of the building that houses Russia’s Investigation Committee, the state agency in charge of criminal investigations. The journalists were trying to hold up posters protesting threats by the head of the Investigation Committee, Alexander Bastrykin, against Sergei Sokolov, the deputy chief editor of Novaya Gazeta, one of Russia’s leading independent media outlets.
The detained journalists were Natella Boltyanskaya, Olga Bychkova, Alina Grebneva, and Vladimir Varfolomeyev, from Ekho Moskvy Radio, and Alexander Podrabinek, a prominent freelance reporter. Bychkova told Human Rights Watch that each was there as an individual and that each was conducting a one-person picket, which by law does not require prior authorization.
However, according to legislation on public rallies adopted last week, individual pickets can be regarded as organized public events if they appear to “have attributes of planned collective action” and therefore are required to provide advance notification, HRW said.
Human Rights Watch noted that the intent of the journalists was to express solidarity for a colleague, whom they believed to be facing an urgent security situation.
In an open letter published in Novaya Gazeta on June 13, its chief editor, Dmitry Muratov, said that Bastrykin blatantly threatened Sokolov because he had, in a recent article, accused the Investigation Committee and its chief of “covering up” for crime bosses. Muratov said that late on June 4 Bastrykin’s security guards forced Sokolov into a car and took him to the woods outside Moscow, where Bastrykin personally confronted the journalist and aggressively threatened him with physical violence.
In the early evening of June 14, Bastrykin, who had initially denied Muratov’s accusations in an interview with Izvestia, met with Muratov and other chief editors of leading Russian media outlets. Novaya Gazeta said that Bastrykin used the meeting to apologize for his behavior. “I had no right to lose my temper, but I lost it, and I’m sorry about it,” Bastrykin was quoted as saying.
Novaya Gazeta’s press service told Human Rights Watch that the publication is satisfied with the outcome and is not asking for an investigation as it “did not want to fight a war with the Investigation Committee.” The outlet also said that Sokolov, who left Russia after the threats because he feared for his life, will return to Russia promptly, after receiving personal guarantees from Bastrykin.
Human Rights Watch said it is “profoundly concerned that a top level Russian official has threatened a journalist.”
“Russia’s international partners should raise with the Russian leadership the increasingly hostile conditions for journalists in the country and urge Russia to foster a favorable working climate for independent press.”