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Russian Journalist Sentenced on Bogus Terrorism Charges

Authorities Abuse Criminal Justice to Silence Independent Media

Russian journalist Svetlana Prokopyeva (left) attends the trial in the Second Western District Military Court. © 2020 Sipa USA via AP

Today, a Russian court sentenced journalist Svetlana Prokopyeva to a fine of 500,000 rubles (approx. USD$ 7000) on bogus terrorism charges. The conviction of the journalist, who works for the Echo of Moscow and Radio Free Europe, is another devastating blow to media freedom in Russia.

Prokopyeva’s nightmare began in February 2019, when police searched her apartment, seized her electronic devices, and interrogated her about a November 2018 radio broadcast. During the broadcast, Prokopyeva commented on an attack perpetrated by a 17-year-old suicide bomber in the Federal Security Service (FSB) building in the city of Arkhangelsk. She argued that Russia’s repressive policies, including the lack of free and fair elections and the crackdown on free assembly, made peaceful political and civic activism nearly impossible and served to radicalize the youth. In July 2019, the authorities put Prokopyeva on the list of “terrorists and extremists,” freezing her assets and allowing her to withdraw only 10,000 rubles (about $140) a month for basic necessities. In September, she was indicted for “public justification or propaganda of terrorism,” based solely on the published transcript of her broadcast.

Not only will Prokopyeva have to pay a fine - outrageous in of itself – the conviction will stalk her even after she pays it. She will have a criminal record and until her conviction expires, her name will remain on the list of “terrorists and extremists,” and she will be restricted from foreign travel.  

Svetlana Prokopyeva, Pskov. © 2019 Pavel Dmitriyev

After years of attacks, groundless prosecutions, stifling fines, and intimidation of independent media, Prokopyeva’s case creates another dangerous precedent, with a journalist found guilty of a terrorism offence for normal journalistic work. These prosecutions are clearly aimed at inciting self-censorship and forcing journalists and editors to doubt every critical word for fear of being labeled an “enemy of the state”.

On July 3, when the prosecution asked the court to jail Prokopyeva for six years and prohibit her from working as a journalist for four years, a journalist and political activist, Ilya Azar, called on colleagues to hold solidarity protests next to the FSB building in central Moscow. Police detained 17 journalists and activists, charging them with violation of regulations on public gatherings.

On July 4, journalists and editors from over 30 Russian media outlets expressed their solidarity with Prokopyeva, stating that her case is an attack on the journalistic profession.

In Russia, where the space for free press has already shrunk dramatically, Prokopyeva’s verdict does real disservice to the public. The authorities should immediately and unconditionally vacate her politically motivated conviction.

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