The arrest of Ivan Golunov is just the latest symptom of Russia’s crackdown on media freedom

Three Russian newspapers took the unprecedented step of publishing identical front pages this morning. 

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On Monday morning in Moscow, three different prominent titles all ran the same front page: “I/We are Ivan Golunov” each stated, in an unprecedented display of solidarity amongst Russia’s leading business dailies.

Ivan Golunov is an investigative journalist with Riga-based outlet Meduza. The 36-year-old is currently under house arrest after being detained on drug charges, and allegedly subjected to violence, in Moscow.

“Ivan was beaten during his arrest and while in custody, before he was allowed to see a lawyer,” said a statement from CEO Galina Timchenko and editor-in-chief Ivan Kolpakov on Friday. “He tried to summon paramedics to record evidence of the mistreatment. The police denied this request.”

Golunov has a track record reporting on high-level corruption in the political and business spheres. However, this was not the stated motivation for his arrest on Thursday, with police instead, allegedly finding illegal drugs on his person with “intent to distribute”.

Golunov’s lawyer said that the mephodrone and cocaine “discovered” in his backpack had been planted on him. “We do not consider the evidence of Ivan Golunov’s guilt to be convincing,” said a joint statement from the trio of papers. “The circumstances of his detention raise serious doubts that the law was not violated over the course of the investigation.”

The newspapers, Vedomosti, Kommersant, and RBK, are considered some of the highest quality media Russia, and have faced their own challenges to their independent journalism. By early afternoon Monday the editions were starting to sell out on Moscow’s newsstands, according to social media. They started becoming something of a collector’s item, with a “full set” going for as much as 250,000 rubles (£3,000) on the country’s leading classifieds site, Avito, with most hovering either side of the 20,000 ruble (£240) mark.

Their show of solidarity was undermined by another direct attack on Russia’s more “liberal” media, however. On Sunday night, just as these newspapers were heading to print, the office of a glamorous, well-funded, yet outspoken organisation, “Snob”, was attacked in Moscow. An unknown man entered the building and destroyed its equipment, the editor-in-chief Ksenia Chudinova told independent television channel Dozhd (“Rain”).

“As soon as we understand the extent of the damage, we will ask for help restoring the equipment,” Chudinova said Monday. Five journalists are now working from Dozhd’s offices as a criminologist examines the scene.

The outpouring of support displays a degree of resistance to a perceived long-running, incremental crackdown on media freedoms in the country.

Meduza, for which Golunov worked, itself has a tumultuous history. The company was set up in the wake of mass resignations at another media outlet, Lenta.ru, after its editor-in-chief Galina Timchenko was fired in March 2014 what is widely believed to have been an act of censorship.

Russia ranks low on Reporters Without Borders’ 2019 World Press Freedom Index, at 149th place out of 180 countries, and has a long track record of silencing journalists. Chechen war reporter Anna Politkovskaya was assassinated in October 2006. Since then, other journalists, artists and academics have been killed, censored or arrested for a wide array of reasons.

In September 2014, Dozhd’s own chief producer was attacked in Moscow and hospitalised after sustaining a facial fracture and concussion. In 2017, the deputy editor at radio station Ekho Moskvy Tatyana Felgenhauer, was stabbed in the neck and placed in an induced coma.

While censorship appears to be thriving, legal attacks on more “liberal” voices never openly suggest that an individual’s work is the reason for any pressure. Russian theatre director Kirill Serebrennikov was arrested in 2017 on suspicion of embezzlement;Pussy Riot were sentenced to prison in 2012 for a conspicuously apolitical conviction of “hooliganism motivated by religious hatred”.  

Last July three journalists were killed in the Central African Republic (CAR) while investigating the activities of private Russian military contractor, Wagner. Two months later, the husband of a Pussy Riot member, Pyotr Verzilov, was admitted to hospital in Berlin for “symptoms of poisoning”. Verzilov suggested that it may have been tied to his attempts to investigate the murder of the CAR journalists.

Scholars studying mass graves under Stalin have also been arrested for crimes relating to paedophilia. Historians Sergei Koltyrin and Yury Dmitriyev both research Stalin-era crimes. Koltyrin was convicted and sentenced to nine years in prison on May 27 for having sex with a minor, while Dmitriyev was arrested in 2016 on child pornography charges relating to photographs of his foster daughter that he claims were intended as documentation after concerns about her health.

A wide-scale protest in support of Golunov is set to take place on Moscow’s Red Square on 12 June. “We have reason to believe he’s been targeted because of his work as a journalist,” the Meduza statement concluded.

Aliide Naylor is a British journalist and former Arts and Ideas Editor of The Moscow Times.