The Russian government’s abuse of the country’s broad, harsh counterterrorism legislation is on shocking display as two journalists now face potential lengthy prison sentences on politically motivated charges.
On September 20, the authorities indicted freelance journalist Svetlana Prokopyeva on groundless charges of “justification of terrorism,” which is punished by up to seven years in prison. In an open letter published yesterday by several Russian media outlets, Prokopyeva called the case against her “a fist in the face of every journalist” in Russia. “You can’t know beforehand which exact words or the order in which they’re placed, will offend your average silovik [law enforcement, military, security service personnel]. … They called an opinion a crime... making a criminal out of a person who was simply doing her job.”
The charges stem from a November 2018 radio broadcast about a 17-year-old boy in Arkhangelsk who detonated a bomb inside a building of the local Federal Security Service (FSB). During the program, Prokopyeva argued that growing up in a repressive state, where peaceful activism faces persecution and human rights are trampled upon, could be a significant factor in radicalizing youth.
Prokopyeva said that she learned of the criminal investigation against her in February, when “a dozen armed men… with riot shields” searched her apartment and seized her laptops and other electronic devices. In August, authorities blocked her bank accounts. “All they had to do next was take the only thing I have left - my freedom,” her letter said.
Meanwhile, Abdulmumin Gadzhiev, an editor of a local independent newspaper in Dagestan, Chernovik, has been in pretrial custody since June and could face up to 20 years in prison. The state’s allegations, that Gadzhiev was involved in “participating in a terrorist organization and abetting terrorism,” in particular the Islamic State (also known as ISIS), are based solely on an article about an Islamic charity foundation that he published in 2013.
Gadzhiev, according to numerous journalists and experts, always took a firm stance against ISIS. He and his paper published extensively on Russia’s misuse of terrorism charges against Salafis, who follow a fundamentalist interpretation of Sunni Islam. In fact, the government’s widespread crackdown against Salafis in Dagestan left Chernovik as the only public discussion platform for moderate Salafis. Authorities previously harassed Chernovik’s journalists and subjected them to bogus criminal prosecution.
The prosecutions of Prokopyeva and Gadzhiev are clear attempts by the Russian government to silence its critics in the media. While the cases may be different, they send a chilling and unambiguous message to all journalists in Russia.