(Moscow) – The arbitrary detention on June 13, 2012, of five journalists who engaged in peaceful, individual pickets in support of a threatened colleague is a chilling demonstration of how repressive and abusive Russia’s new regulations on demonstrations are, Human Rights Watch said today. The Kremlin should revise the new law on public rallies, which was the basis for the detentions, Human Rights Watch said. The law is incompatible with Russia’s legal obligations to respect and uphold freedom of expression and assembly.
The police detained the journalists at about 4 p.m. on June 13 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 Varfolomeev, from Echo of Moscow 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. Police officers, referring to this provision of the law, immediately demanded that the journalists leave and then forced them into a van. Police took the journalists to the Basmanny precinct in central Moscow, where they questioned the journalists, forced them to provide written statements explaining their actions, and then released them without charge.
“The detention of these journalists clearly shows how the new law can be used to suppress freedom of expression in Russia,” said Tanya Lokshina, senior researcher for Russia at Human Rights Watch. “Even if a law gives police powers of detention, to use them to suppress the legitimate exercise of fundamental rights makes that use arbitrary and abusive.”
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.
Bychkova told Human Rights Watch that each of the five was careful to stand at some distance from the others, so that they would not constitute a group of demonstrators. She also said that the police moved so quickly to detain them, that only Varfolomeev and Grebneva had time to unfold and hoist their posters. Bychkova said that police officials at the precinct warned them “not to attempt any such thing in the future” and referred repeatedly to the new law.
The detention of the five journalists caused an immediate media outcry, and other journalists went to the Investigation Committee building. Olga Allenova, from Kommersant Daily, told Human Rights Watch that she arrived at the building at 4:50 p.m. alone, and that Alexander Ryklin, chief-editor of the online Ezhednevny Journal, showed up some 15 minutes later. Ryklin stood with a poster “Bastrykin, goodbye!” for 30 to 40 minutes. Although a policeman asked Ryklin for his passport and inquired about the reasons for his picket, he was eventually left alone.
When Ryklin was leaving, Allenova took his poster to hold it up. A policeman immediately warned her that taking over someone else’s poster qualified as collective action, which gave him the right to arrest her. By then, several other journalists had arrived and had brought with them blank placards. Allenova told Human Rights Watch that she asked the policeman if she could draw herself an original poster, to which he replied: “If your new poster revolves around the same idea as the other poster, it will mean that this is an organized public action, not an individual picket.”
“It seems the police have every intent to use the new law to make it as difficult as possible for individuals to hold pickets and to quash any form of collective action’” Lokshina said. “Russia’s international partners should address the use of this law now and not wait for further detentions.”
Allenova told Human Rights Watch that, between 5 and 9 p.m., approximately 25 journalists arrived at the Investigative Committee to support Sokolov and their detained colleagues. Allenova said police did not detain anyone else, but merely behaved in an intimidating manner. Allenova believes a large wave of criticism that appeared in online media and on social networking sites discouraged the authorities from detaining any of the other journalists.
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 as he received personal guarantees from Bastrykin.
Human Rights Watch 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.