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The arrest and detention of investigative reporter Ivan Golunov in Moscow over the weekend has created what could be a pivotal moment in the relationship between Russia's Fourth Estate and the government.
Mr. Golunov is the author of some of the most penetrating studies of the nexus between crime and corrupt authorities being published for Russian audiences today. After his arrest Thursday on dubious drug charges, Russia’s independent trade union of journalists called on its members to picket police stations around Russia. At least 100 showed up in Moscow on Friday, and dozens were detained by police. Three leading Russian newspapers came out with identical front pages, along with editorials in his support, on Monday.
“I think this Golunov story is a possible game-changer,” says Vladimir Pozner, an elder statesman of Soviet and Russian journalism. “There is a massive outpouring of solidarity from people who do not normally take political stands. It shows that there is a gradual understanding that if you don’t stand up for your colleagues when they are being repressed, you better keep in mind that you too will be repressed.”
Very few Russians had even heard of Ivan Golunov before his arrest for alleged drug possession Thursday.
But what had begun as a typical Putin-era case of what is sometimes called lawfare – abuse of the police and prosecutorial machinery to brand political opponents as criminals – waged against a journalist has blown up into what could be a pivotal moment in the relationship between Russia's Fourth Estate and the government.
An investigative reporter for the Latvia-based Meduza online news service, Mr. Golunov is the author of some of the most penetrating studies of the nexus between crime and corrupt authorities being published for Russian audiences today. (Many are also available in English.)
For Russian human rights monitors, what happened Thursday is a familiar story. On his way to meet a source, he was detained by police, who claim to have found packets of mephedrone, a designer drug, among his things. A search of his apartment subsequently turned up more narcotics, along with a set of scales, indicating that he was involved in drug dealing. A terse statement from the Ministry of Internal Affairs, which oversees the police, lays out the case against him and denies allegations that he was subsequently beaten and mistreated by police.
But what followed was not typical. Russia’s independent trade union of journalists called on its members to picket police stations around Russia; at least 100 showed up in Moscow on Friday, and dozens were detained by police. Many Russian celebrities recorded YouTube messages of support for Mr. Golunov. Three leading Russian newspapers came out with identical front pages, along with editorials in his support, on Monday.
There was an outpouring of social media memes of solidarity; weekend gauges of Russian social media found Mr. Golunov topping Vladimir Putin in mentions as his story went viral. And supporters have organized a public rally in central Moscow for Wednesday, which is Independence Day, an official holiday in Russia – and they have pointedly defied authorities by declining to ask for permission.
“This is the biggest campaign of journalistic solidarity in Russia for a long time,” says Ivan Kolpakov, Meduza’s editor-in-chief, speaking from his office in Riga, Latvia. “I never expected this kind of support. I am pleased, surprised, and hopeful that it will help to free Ivan [Golunov]. Of course, that is our No. 1 priority: to secure his safety, his freedom. But if it is also helping to change Russia’s political culture and space for journalistic activity, that is wonderful too.”
Meduza, which largely covers Russian affairs, aims at a wider Russian-speaking audience, including in the former Soviet Baltic states, and also publishes some of its output in English.
“We are based in Latvia as a matter of safety,” says Mr. Kolpakov. “It gives us more room for independence and creates another perspective on Russia.”
‘A possible game-changer’
Nothing like this has happened in Russia for at least 15 years.
It may represent a tipping-point for Russia’s beleaguered press corps. They have long been stereotyped as conformist, self-censoring, and official-line-toeing journalists who have learned to live in a virtual straitjacket ever since Vladimir Putin brought the freewheeling 1990s media to heel in a wave of state takeovers after coming to power nearly 20 years ago.
The image of Russia’s Putin-era media as a Kremlin-dominated monolith has never been quite true. But the state has permitted its law enforcement agencies as well as freelance political forces to intimidate and crack down on journalists viewed as working outside the acceptable spectrum of news production.
Russian journalists are pushing back, and trying to lay down some markers to authorities because they can, says Stepan Goncharov, an expert with the Levada Center, Russia’s only independent public opinion agency.
“This shows that journalists are the most consolidated social group,” Mr. Goncharov says. “It demonstrates that they are able to communicate, come to an understanding of common interests, and express themselves publicly. These three newspapers – Kommersant, RBK, and Vedomosti – are not in opposition [to the government]. They are aroused not so much by the arrest of Golunov, but the way it was done. The accusations are unrealistic, they treat public opinion with disdain, and that is the catalyst for the discontent we are seeing.”
The Golunov case has raised hopes – as well as doubts – that Russian political culture might be changing and, along with it, the prospects for the country’s Fourth Estate to expand its professional footprint.
One sign that the landscape might be changing in the face of widespread public protest: On Saturday a Moscow court defied a prosecutor’s demands and allowed Mr. Golunov to be moved to house arrest pending trial, where he will be in full contact with his friends and supporters. Russian prosecutors usually get their wish to have prisoners held in pre-trial detention centers, where they are under full police control.
One feature of the present moment is that a wide range of people have come forward to defend Mr. Golunov, and not just the usual liberal activists and opposition media voices. Vladimir Pozner has been a fixture of Soviet and Russian media for many decades and, as host of the state-run Channel One’s top-rated interview show, “Pozner,” he presumably has a lot to lose by speaking out.
“I think this Golunov story is a possible game-changer,” Mr. Pozner says. “The Soviet Union and Russia have not tended to be healthy environments for public protest. But we are seeing a very important change. There is a massive outpouring of solidarity from people who do not normally take political stands. It shows that there is a gradual understanding that if you don’t stand up for your colleagues when they are being repressed, you better keep in mind that you too will be repressed.”
The arrest of Mr. Golunov, he says, “is an attempt to cow not only him, but everyone involved in investigative journalism. I am optimistic that it will fail, and we will all find ourselves in a better place as a result.”
‘We are not one army’
Some do question the leap to defend Mr. Golunov. “There are lots of journalists who use and even distribute drugs, this is not a secret,” says Nikolay Starikov, leader of the conservative social movement Patriots of Great Fatherland. “So how does it happen that everyone just assumes Golunov’s innocence, without even waiting for the results of even the preliminary investigation? That’s just pure bias.”
And some journalists, while struck by the outpouring of support, are dubious that it marks a shift. “Yes, it’s remarkable that a lot of journalists are not sitting silent about this Golunov case,” says Sergei Strokan, foreign affairs columnist for the Moscow business daily Kommersant, one of the three mainstream papers that supported Mr. Golunov on their front pages Monday. “But there are journalists, and there are journalist card-holders. Lots of places filled with journalists are conspicuously not speaking up.
“If you go to Sputnik, or [the government newspaper] Rossiskaya Gazeta, you will find lots of journalists who accept the state narrative that Golunov is just a troublemaker, and Meduza is an agent of foreign interests. So, the fact that these three papers are supporting Golunov looks more like an act of desperation than some kind of breakthrough,” Mr. Strokan continues. “This is not a protest of the journalistic community. We are not one army with the people at RIA or Rossiskaya Gazeta, and our authorities are very good at playing one group against another.”
Ironically, Kommersant itself was the scene of a bitter struggle last month when its entire domestic newsroom resigned in protest over the firing of two journalists by the paper’s Kremlin-friendly oligarch owner – a scandal that was covered in full by Meduza.
Mr. Strokan, who lost his job with the independent media group Media Most in 2001 when the then-new Putin administration took it over, says he is gloomy about the prospects of anything changing. “Look at the calendar, it’s 2019,” he says. “There were huge rallies in support of media freedom two decades ago, and we were all eventually ground down. I’m not being pessimistic here, just realistic.”
Mr. Pozner says it’s different this time, because two decades ago people had tasted the political and press freedoms of the 1990s, and were less fearful of the consequences of speaking out.
“It’s been made abundantly clear that to fight the powers that be is a dangerous path, even a hopeless one,” he says. “Nevertheless, we are seeing this upsurge of public spirit and journalistic solidarity today. That’s amazing.”
Editors note: This story has been updated to correct the Russian national holiday on Wednesday.