The Russian authorities have developed a sophisticated system of restrictions and severe reprisals to crush public protests, which extends to suppressing any reporting of them by journalists and independent monitors.
Restrictions have increased since the invasion of Ukraine in February 2022, and the unbridled repression of the anti-war movement virtually precludes public protest and any sharing of information about it, said Amnesty International in a new report published today.
The report, Russia: “You will be arrested anyway”: Reprisals against Monitors and Media Workers Reporting from Protests, documents dozens of cases of unlawful obstruction of journalists’ and monitors’ work during public protests, including arbitrary arrests, use of force, detentions and heavy fines.
“We can see that the Russian authorities are hellbent not only on preventing and severely penalizing any protest, however peaceful, but also on minimizing any public awareness of it,” said Natalia Prilutskaya, Amnesty International’s Russia Researcher.
“From the very beginning of Vladimir Putin’s presidency in 2000, the Russian authorities have been gradually limiting the right to peaceful protest, have increasingly penalized those who try to exercise it, making Russia a virtually protest-free zone. In February 2022, tens of thousands defied the prospect of extortionate fines and imprisonment and took to the streets of Russian cities in protest against the invasion of Ukraine. The authorities responded by issuing the heaviest penalties available against many participants. The police used brutal force against media workers and monitors observing and independently reporting on the protests.
“The authorities used the same approach a year earlier at protests in support of the wrongfully imprisoned opposition leader, Aleksei Navalny. By denying the public any knowledge about protests and obstructing their monitoring, the Kremlin is seeking to eradicate any public expression of discontent.”
New perils for independent media to suppress anti-war reporting and protests
Over the last several years, the Russian authorities have set up a legislative system which restricts freedom of expression and severely elevates the risks faced by observers, journalists and other media workers reporting on public assemblies.
The law requires journalists at protests to wear “clearly visible insignia of a mass media representative”.
However, police have increasingly made additional demands, including for “editorial assignment letters” or passports from media workers covering public assemblies. The authorities have warned media workers against “participation” in upcoming protests, and have arbitrarily arrested journalists before, during and after rallies they reported from. In many cases, arrests were carried out with excessive and unlawful force which could amount to torture and other ill-treatment.
“Alongside severe legal restrictions on media freedoms already imposed by the state, police are increasingly acting arbitrarily to prevent journalists and other media workers informing the public about the protests,” said Natalia Prilutskaya.
According to the independent Union of Journalists and Media Workers (which was closed by a court order in September 2022), at least 16 reporters were arrested within a week after mass protests erupted on 23 January 2021 against the jailing of Aleksei Navalny. Seven staff members of the Committee Against Torture, a prominent Russian human rights NGO, were arbitrarily arrested, in some cases with force, while monitoring the protests. In many of these and other cases, media workers and protest monitors stood trial for “participation in an unauthorized public assembly” and were issued with fines or sentenced to 10 days or longer terms of so-called administrative detention.
Reprisals against public watchdogs and media workers escalated further after the full-scale invasion of Ukraine. On 4 March 2022, new legislation was adopted further restricting the right to freedom of expression. At the time of writing, the authorities had initiated criminal proceedings against at least nine journalists and bloggers under the then-introduced offence of “disseminating false information about the Russian Armed Forces” (Article 207.3 of the Criminal Code). Some media outlets and journalists have also been penalized under another new “offence”, that of “discrediting” the Russian Armed Forces deployed abroad (Article 20.3.3 of the Code of Administrative Offences) after they shared information about the war in Ukraine.
Under the new legislation, a media report containing any anti-war message became a possible reason for persecution. In June and July 2022, Vechernie Vedomosti, an independent media outlet in Yekaterinburg and its publisher, Guzel Aitukova, were fined 450,000 rubles (US$ 7,240) for the publication of a partially blurred photo of anti-war stickers and of other visuals opposing the invasion.
In two other instances, several members of the news teams at Dovod, an independent online media outlet in Vladimir, and Pskovskaya Guberniya, a newspaper in Pskov, were targeted for their coverage of anti-war protests.
On 5 March, police searched the homes of Dovod’s editor-in-chief Kirill Ishutin and three other journalists – including 17-year-old Evgeny Sautin – putatively as witnesses in a criminal investigation into “vandalism” in connection with the appearance of anti-war graffiti on a local bridge, which was first reported by Dovod. On the same day, police and special riot police broke into the office of Pskovskaya Gubernia, conducted searches and confiscated computers, phones and other equipment, as part of an administrative case involving the “offence” of “discrediting” the Russian Armed Forces deployed abroad, which had been introduced into law a day earlier. According to an anonymous complaint, the newspaper had allegedly called for mass protests in its email newsletter. The next day, Pskovskaya Gubernia announced that it had had to suspend its work until further notice.
The relentless attacks on the free press for covering the Russian invasion of Ukraine and the activities of the anti-war movement have led to an exodus of hundreds of journalists from Russia. The independent TV channel TV Rain and the Novaya Gazeta newspaper were among those forced to halt their work. Radio station Ekho Moskvy,which served as a platform for some of the most critical voices in Russia, was closed down by the authorities. Their respective teams had to seek new ways of working to inform Russian audiences.
Need for change and stronger scrutiny from the international community
The appalling practices targeting peaceful protesters, reporters and independent monitors must end immediately. The repressive Russian laws, restricting freedom of expression, must be abolished.
“As long as Russia’s government is able to strangle rights and freedoms within the country, and remains on the path of self-isolation, appalling abuses across the board will continue, including the crime of aggression against Ukraine,” said Natalia Prilutskaya.
“Close and effective scrutiny by the international community is required. In times as dark as these it is paramount to extend a helping hand to beleaguered Russian civil society and independent media, to help those who monitor and report abuses within the country and to tell the world about them.”