The Irish Times view on press freedom in Russia: an important victory

Crude set-up, arrest of investigative reporter Ivan Golunov prompted a wave of solidarity

Policemen detain Russian opposition leader Alexei Navalny during a rally in support of investigative journalist Ivan Golunov, who was detained by police, accused of drug offences and later freed, in Moscow on Wednesday. Photograph: Maxim Shemetov/Reuters

Policemen detain Russian opposition leader Alexei Navalny during a rally in support of investigative journalist Ivan Golunov, who was detained by police, accused of drug offences and later freed, in Moscow on Wednesday. Photograph: Maxim Shemetov/Reuters

 

Russian authorities can seem impervious to public criticism, but a rare U-turn in the face of street protests over the arrest of a journalist this week suggests the Kremlin is more sensitive to signs of public discontent than is widely assumed.

Ivan Golunov, an investigative reporter for digital media outlet Meduza, was arrested last week on drug trafficking charges he said were invented in retaliation for his work on official corruption. The 36-year-old said officers planted the drugs, denied him access to a lawyer until several hours after his arrest and assaulted him when he refused to sign a confession.

The crude set-up and arrest set social media alight and prompted a wave of solidarity towards the journalist. Protesters took to the streets of Moscow, celebrities and TV personalities denounced the charges, and on Monday three of Russia’s daily newspapers ran the same front page headline “I/We are Ivan Golunov”. Not long after, Golunov was freed and the charges were dropped, the interior minister acknowledging that there was a “lack of evidence of his participation in the crime”. On Thursday it was announced that President Vladimir Putin had fired two police generals involved in the discredited case.

Such was scale of the public outcry and the weakness of the police case, it turned out, the Kremlin felt it had no option but to execute a quick retreat.

This was a remarkable victory for independent journalists in a country where members of the trade work in intolerable conditions and risk their lives to do their work. But the elation was shortlived: in the aftermath of Golunov’s release, more than 1,000 people continued with a planned protest over the framing of the journalist. Police responded by arresting hundreds of people, including Alexei Navalny, the prominent opposition leader, and several journalists.

Reporters Without Borders, which ranks Russia 149th out of 180 countries in its World Press Freedom Index, says at least six other journalists are still in detention in Russia.

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