Police in southern Russia detained, harassed, and threatened to imprison two journalists from a Norwegian television station who were on a reporting trip to Sochi, Human Rights Watch said today.
Over the course of three days, the Russian authorities repeatedly detained and questioned the crew from Norway’s TV2 television station, which is the official broadcaster in Norway of the Sochi 2014 Winter Olympic Games.
“The government’s treatment of TV2’s crew should shock the International Olympic Committee,” said Jane Buchanan, associate director for Europe and Central Asia at Human Rights Watch. “The IOC needs to demand a full explanation from the Russian authorities about the bullying of an Olympic broadcaster’s staff and insist that no other journalists suffer this kind of intimidation and harassment.”
Russian authorities should immediately stop harassing journalists and ensure press freedom ahead of the 2014 Winter Olympic Games in Sochi, Human Rights Watch said.
From October 31 to November 2, 2013, Russian traffic police stopped Øystein Bogen, a reporter for TV2, and cameraman Aage Aunes six times while the men were reporting on stories in the Republic of Adygea, which borders Sochi to the north along the Black Sea coast. Officials took the journalists into police custody three times. At every stop and in detention, officials questioned the journalists aggressively about their work plans in Sochi and other areas, their sources, and in some cases about their personal lives, educational backgrounds, and religious beliefs. In several instances they denied the journalists contact with the Norwegian Embassy in Moscow. One official threatened to jail Bogen.
Bogen told Human Rights Watch that their research and reporting aimed to shed a critical light on different aspects of the preparations for the Olympic Games in Sochi.
“The Russian authorities tried almost every pressure tactic in the book to try to scare these journalists away from critical reporting on Sochi and other Olympics-related topics,” Buchanan said. “Thousands of reporters will visit Sochi for the Games and it is one of the central requirements of hosting the Olympics that they can report without interference and intimidation.”Press freedom is expressly guaranteed and protected under the Olympic Charter, which dedicates an entire section to “Media Coverage of the Olympic Games.” The IOC is obligated to take “all necessary steps in order to ensure the fullest coverage by the different media.” Other bylaws require that “media coverage of the Olympic Games shall not be impaired in any way….”
Russian authorities’ treatment of Bogen and Aunes contravenes the government’s Olympic commitments to protect press freedom, Human Rights Watch said.
Journalists’ Ordeal Detailed
Bogen and Aunes arrived in the town of Maykop, the capital of Adygea, on October 31. On November 1, Maykop traffic police stopped Bogen and Aunes in their rental car very shortly after the journalists had finished an interview. Bogen told Human Rights Watch that the officers questioned them extensively about their passports and other documents, their car, their work plan, and the people they were interviewing. Other traffic police had similarly questioned them earlier that day and on October 31.
After approximately 20 minutes of questioning, a second police car with more senior officers arrived. One officer, without any explanation, alleged that Bogen had been using narcotic drugs and ordered him to submit to a drug test. Bogen flatly denied the allegation. Bogen said that when he asked what would happen if he declined to take the drug test, the officer told him, “That will be an admission of your guilt, and we will put you in jail.”
The officers ordered Bogen to drive to the local drug clinic, despite claiming that he might be under the influence of drugs. At the clinic, officers repeatedly pressured him to take a drug test. After calling and consulting with the Norwegian Embassy in Moscow, Bogen refused the drug test. According to Bogen, approximately 90 minutes later, another official, who claimed to be the head of the Maykop traffic police but who only gave his first name, claimed that there had been a “misunderstanding” and released the journalists.
In an unrelated incident, Sochi traffic police detained Nikolai Yarst, a Sochi-based journalist for Russian television company OTR, on May 23, 2013, on suspicion that he had drugs in his car. He was subsequently charged withillegal possession, use, or carrying a large volume of narcotics. Yarst remains under house arrest and forbidden to use any means of communication, to have visitors, or to work. Yarst’s lawyer told Human Rights Watch that a number of procedural violations and other elements regarding the case strongly suggest a political motivation behind the charges.
On November 2, as Bogen and Aunes traveled in their rental car from Maykop to Sochi, they were again stopped by traffic police near the town of Khadyzhensk and questioned for approximately one hour.
That evening, at approximately 6:40 p.m., police stopped the journalists as they were driving to Sochi near the town of Tuapse on the Black Sea. After extensive questioning and a thorough search of the men’s luggage, the traffic officers told Bogen that they were “not satisfied with his answers” and that he and Aune would be detained. A second police car then arrived and escorted the men to the main police station in Tuapse. At the police station an officer wearing no name badge and who refused to identify himself ordered the journalists to hand over all of their possessions, including cell phones, camera equipment, and personal items. The equipment was later returned.
Bogen told Human Rights Watch that after the police returned his phone, the device prompted him to provide a new password. This led Bogen to suspect that his and Aunes’ telephones had been tampered with.
While in the Tuapse police station, Bogen and Aunes were fingerprinted and held in a cell with other detainees. Police did not explain the reasons for the detention and fingerprinting. Police also refused, without explanation, the journalists’ repeated requests to call their embassy. An official claiming to be from the Federal Migration Service, but who refused to show any identification or give his name, questioned Bogen, alleging that he and Aunes were using documents that are fake or flawed. Without any explanation, police released the journalists at approximately 10 p.m.
“Welcome to Sochi”
About 45 minutes after being released from the Tuapse police station, traffic police on the outskirts of Sochi again stopped Bogen and Aunes, inspected their documents, questioned them, searched their luggage, and performed body searches on the two men. Officials then took the journalists into the nearby checkpoint, where, according to Bogen, an official claimed that it is normal procedure for everyone traveling to Sochi to be questioned about their plans there.
The official questioned Bogen in detail about his personal background, private life, whereabouts since arriving to Russia, and work in recent days. The official also demanded the name of all of the people whom he met and planned to meet, what kind of reporting he planned to do in Sochi, and where they planned to film. According to Bogen, one official asked, “Are you going to say anything negative about the Olympics?”
Officials refused Bogen’s requests to call the embassy and did not inform the journalists of their rights. Police officials forced them to sign an interrogation protocol but refused to give them a copy.Under Russian law, police may detain people for up to three hours without charge in order to “establish their identity.” The authorities must, at the time of detention, inform the detainee of the reason for the detention and log the detention. Authorities must also provide individuals in custody with immediate access to a lawyer or to contact their embassy.
According to Bogen, when he asked if they would be stopped and detained again after leaving this station, as had happened repeatedly, the official told him, “You are not going to be stopped again. We are finished with you. Welcome to Sochi.”
On at least two occasions police acknowledged that Bogen and Aunes were being specifically targeted. One traffic officer told them that the journalists were “on a black list.” Another told them that the Federal Security Service (FSB) had sent their rental car’s license plate to all traffic police checkpoints.
The traffic police on the outskirts of Sochi released Bogen and Aunes shortly after 1:00 a.m. on November 3 and the journalists drove to Sochi. Bogen told Human Rights Watch that he and Aunes had been able to work in Sochi for two days following this last incident without interference.
Bogen told Human Rights Watch, “I am upset that this happened and very surprised. I have been working in Russia since 1995, including in the North Caucasus and many other places, and have never experienced anything remotely similar. They were clearly targeting us and trying to get our sources.”
Bogen and Aunes prepared a television report for TV2 about the incidents which aired on November 3.