In a very politicized court case this week, a Russian judge may have set the foundation for a freer Russian media going forward. In the case of Svetlana Prokopyeva, a Russian freelance journalist for the United States funded company Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty, was found guilty of justifying a recent domestic terror attack, but the judge administered a lesser penalty than what the prosecution was litigating for. The prosecution, acting on behalf of the Kremlin, was pushing for six years of prison time for Prokopyeva accompanied by another 4-year ban on her ability to be a journalist. Instead, the judge ruled that she pay a fine of 500,000 rubles which is the rough equivalent of 7,000 USD.
The background of her trial dates back to a domestic terrorist attack executed in 2018 where a seventeen-year-old Russian blew himself up in a Federal Security Services building that resulted in him only killing himself but wounding three Russian agents. The Federal Security Service is the primary agency that took over after the KGB was disbanded in 1991. The Kremlin found that the charge of justifying terrorism was grounded in Prokopyeva’s response to the event whereby she attempted to explain the causation of this terror attack to which she determined was the boy’s discontent with the current political atmosphere of Russia, one where oppression of media is common and freedoms are limited. While these charges are no more egregious than anything the Kremlin has done before, the public outcry of support for Prokopyeva was staggering and prompted the Kremlin to be on the back foot.
Just after the trial concluded, in the areas surrounding of the courthouse, The Moscow Times reports that many free speech supporters gathered shouting their support for Prokopyeva as well as their distaste for the government. Writing for the Moscow Times, Marina Koreneva continues on to say protesters were yelling, “Shame” and “She is not guilty,” as well as others wearing shirts saying, “We will not shut up.” Koreneva continues on to saying that all of the free speech advocates had already donated enough money to account for 20% of Prokopyeva’s fine before she left the property of the courthouse. However, the money does not appear to be the main focus. Many are saying that even the reduced penalty is still wildly unwarranted and that this is simply another attack on the media like so many before.
The Human Rights Watch finds that the increase in government control over the media can be traced back to 2012 when legislation was passed allowing the state to impose penalties on citizens for any sort of criticism aimed at the government, even social media posts. The result of these new laws was the majority of popular news media sources being transformed into propaganda machines that are disguised as free media. While Russia has been facing pressure from other nations to create a free and open media landscape, Russian citizens have recently been taking matters into their own hands. Koreneva continues on to highlight certain cases in which action was taken against journalists for dissenting against the government. One case she highlights is that of a journalist who was alone at polling stations protesting Putin’s recent extension of power allowing him to remain as the president for another six years, his protests were met with police violence and subsequent hospitalization.
This type of media censorship and outward oppression must come to a stop if Russia has any aspirations of becoming a democratic state. Human Rights Watch has called on Russia to abandon all “extremism legislation” that focuses on punishing those who call for, “separatism and incite hatred.” The problem with these laws is the vagueness of the wording that allows the Kremlin to unjustly imprison hundreds just as they have been doing. The ability for the court to rule partially against the Kremlin and only administer a fine to Prokopyeva due to the public pressure surrounding the case may be exactly what Russian citizens need to begin working towards a free media.