Russian news journalist Ivan Golunov was facing up to twenty years in prison on a drug trafficking charge. He was accused of having the intent to distribute a large quantity of mephedrone (bath salts) and cocaine. Following his detainment on June 6 in Moscow, police released photos of a drug lab in his apartment. These images were quickly deleted after a police spokesman admitted they weren’t taken from within his home. A series of forensic tests also failed to reveal any drugs traces in Golunov’s urine or hands. Today, charges against the embattled reporter have been dropped because of a ‘lack of evidence’. While police have described the incident as ‘a small mix-up’, the shady circumstances surrounding Golunov’s arrest have been universally condemned. Unable to communicate with his lawyer for the first twelve hours of his arrest, Golunov claims that police unlawfully demanded he sign a false confession. More disturbingly, he was beaten while in custody, suffering broken ribs, concussion and a trauma-induced hematoma. Two separate teams of doctors recommended Golunov receive hospital treatment, however their requests were refused by state investigators. This arrest is the latest in a continued pattern of State aggression and violence toward journalists in Russia.
This threat against Russia’s independent media operators has been resisted by a fierce, and increasingly coordinated, opposition. An unprecedented collaboration between Russia’s major newspapers has resulted in the publishing of identical front pages and editorials in support of Golunov. Their collective headlines read “I am/we are Ivan Golunov”. The public’s outpouring of support is a definite condemnation of the Kremlin’s intimidation tactics toward journalists; a political scientist at the Levada Center (Russia’s only independent public opinion agency), Stepan Goncharov, believes that “Russian journalists are pushing back, and are trying to lay down some markers to authorities”. Russian Amnesty International Representative Natalia Zviagin bemoaned the “depressingly familiar pattern” of the detention of domestic journalists.
The United Nations Universal Declaration of Human Rights states that “Everyone has the right to freedom of opinion and expression; this right includes freedom to hold opinions without interference”. Russia’s current ranking as the 148th nation, in terms of press freedom, is indicative of the Government’s increased shutdown of unfettered news sources. Journalists in Russia are constantly facing criminal investigations, physical attacks and copious amounts of bureaucracy. United in solidarity, ‘single picket’ protesters have embodied the increasingly prominent public stand against the draconian measures used to silence critics. Legislation disallows protesters to stand less than 50 meters from each other, when holding signs.
Russian media has been conditioned to operate as a mouthpiece for the State. A fundamental effect of Putin’s push toward authoritarianism, the majority of dissenting political voices have been silenced for the sake of ‘political stability’. Golunov’s criticisms of powerful ‘black creditors’, organised crime syndicates, law enforcement, and government bureaucrats jeopardises these concocted notions of stability.
A possible watershed moment for Russia’s media, Golunov’s arrest and release could potentially act as an important catalyst for change. Pro-Kremlin officials and State media have lambasted the inept ‘unprofessionalism, recklessness, and provocation’ of the police involved in this case. However, unconfirmed reports suggest that State media was encouraged to support Golunov in order to quell any disputes arising before Putin’s upcoming question and answer interview. Russian journalists are euphoric about their temporary ‘victory’, however their success may be just that…temporary.
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