In an unprecedented show of solidarity among journalists in Russia, three of the country’s top newspapers have published identical front pages calling for the release of an arrested investigative reporter.
Ivan Golunov, a 36-year-old journalist known for his work exposing corruption among Moscow’s political elite, was detained last week over allegations that he manufactured and dealt drugs. Defence lawyers say the narcotics were planted on Golunov, who faces 20 years in prison if convicted.
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On Monday, the Vedomosti, Kommersant and RBC newspapers each published in large type on their cover page the phrase “I am/We are Ivan Golunov,” accompanied by editorials calling for inquiries into the case.
“We do not rule out that Golunov’s detention and subsequent arrest are linked to his professional activities,” they said, adding that the journalist’s detention amounted to an act of intimidation.
Many newspaper kiosks in the capital, Moscow, ran out of the special edition by early afternoon.
Hundreds of Golunov’s supporters rallied outside a Moscow court at the weekend. The journalist, who works for independent Russian-language media outlet Meduza, was then released from jail and placed under house arrest.
Golunov has built a career out of investigating Moscow’s most corrupt and most powerful figures. He also featured in a 2018 Al Jazeera investigative documentary, The Oligarchs, in which he told the story of securing a rare interview with fugitive Ukrainian Serhiy Kurchenko, only to be met at gunpoint with an attempted bribe.
Speaking to reporters on Monday, Dmitry Peskov, spokesman for Russian President Vladimir Putin, said the Kremlin was “carefully monitoring” Golunov’s case which, he admitted, had triggered a “great number of questions”.
Peskov, however, sought to defend the police and courts.
“I believe it would be wrong to make general conclusions about the mistrust towards the entire system based on his case,” he told reporters.
During his two decades in power, Putin has silenced most of his critics and sought to muzzle the media.
Kremlin critics say the few opposition and independent media that still operate in Russia are under huge pressure, with their journalists frequently facing criminal probes, physical attacks and official pressure.
Russia ranks 149th out of 180 countries on the World Press Freedom Index compiled by the journalist watchdog Reporters Without Borders, known by its French acronym RSF.
“As TV channels continue to inundate viewers with propaganda, the climate has become very oppressive for those who question the new patriotic and neo-conservative discourse, or just try to maintain quality journalism,” the RSF said in its 2019 summary for Russia, describing the atmosphere for independent journalists as “stifling”.
“More journalists are now in prison than at any time since the fall of the Soviet Union and more and more bloggers are being jailed.”
‘Test for us all’
Many prominent figures have come out in support of Golunov, with musicians joining forces with rights activists and authors.
“Police and security services have declared war against us,” the front page of opposition newspaper Novaya Gazeta read on Monday. “Well, we’ll respond.”
Even some staunchly pro-Kremlin television journalists gave their backing to Golunov.
“This is a test for us all,” NTV channel host Irada Zeinalova said onscreen.
Dmitry Djulai, Golunov’s lawyer, said he believed police had attempted to frame the journalist.
Speaking to Reuters after last week’s arrest, he said his client had been beaten, and police had refused to take swabs from his hands or rucksack or to take fingernail samples – all of which would have provided evidence of whether or not he had been in contact with drugs.
Djulai said police refused to call medics in order to catalogue and treat the injuries he said his client had suffered in custody.
RSF also suggested there were irregularities around Golunov’s detention.
“The extremely strange behaviour of the police suggests that Ivan Golunov has been arrested on a trumped-up charge,” Johann Bihr, the head of RSF’s Eastern Europe and Central Asia desk, told Al Jazeera.
“Why would they otherwise deny him access to his lawyer and refuse to carry out decisive tests? If fabricated evidence really has been used to arrest a journalist who is so well-known throughout Russia, this would mark a significant escalation in the harassment of the country’s independent media.”