Date: 1 July 2019 Author: Grzegorz Kuczyński
One Golunov Doesn’t Make Summer
Staging provocations and framing people referred to as uncomfortable for the regime are a common practice in Russia under Vladimir Putin, with drugs and even child pornography being planted on the regime’s opponents. More and more people, including journalists, are sent behind bars on bogus charges while law enforcement agencies, prosecutors and courts follow the orders from the state authorities. Ivan Golunov was expected to share the fate of his peers. But something went wrong and the journalist has been released from arrest. What happened? Does this suggest a U-turn in the Kremlin’s policy?
Russian investigative journalist Ivan Golunov was arrested on a Moscow street on June 6. Police said it found in his possession drugs while Golunov’s lawyers argued that the drugs had been planted to frame the man, claiming that the journalist had been beaten while in custody, but police officers eventually rejected these accusations. The man was charged with drug trafficking, a crime that carries a sentence between 10 to 20 years. The journalist was taken to the hospital amid his lawyers’ accusations he was beaten by police officers, from where he was later transported to a court that put Golunov under house arrest. Since the scandal erupted, both the police and investigators have breached all principles, starting from Golunov’s detainment, through his interrogation, to a search of his home. The journalist’s case was as plain as a pikestaff from the very beginning, hinting both the journalistic milieu and the public to react with determination. To the surprise of all these who required to arrest Golunov and those who executed the order, what happened after detaining the journalist went far beyond many similar cases, sparking outrage both in Russia and worldwide. The action against Golunov performed by medium-ranking siloviki posed a threat to the Kremlin’s image ahead of the International Economic Forum in St. Petersburg. This is why there occurred a tilt in the case, with unprecedented public outcry, protests and never-before-seen solidarity of the journalistic milieu and significant part of society reached the peak, prompting the authorities to make concessions. Russia’s Interior Ministry dropped charges against the journalist and punished the police officers involved in the case. Following the talk with Putin, Interior Minister Vladimir Kolokoltsev sacked two generals in charge of a Moscow district where they both sought to plunge Golunov. But for five days the journalist had faced up to 20 years behind bars. Taken into account the Kremlin’s increasingly repressive policy, Golunov unexpectedly got away with all this. But all those that hope this will bring any imminent changes within the Russian regime and Putin chose to alleviate his policy are sorely mistaken. And so are all Western journalists who triumphally reported that their Russian peer defeated Putin. Nothing could be further from the truth and this was instantly corroborated.
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Despite Golunov’s release, free press proponents gathered during an unauthorized march in central Moscow. Officers in riot gear clashed with protesters, detaining more than 500 people.
Freeing Golunov from police custody can by no means be seen as a wind of change blowing throughout the state policy, as evidenced not only by a crackdown on the demonstration staged on June 12. Shortly after, Abdulmumin Gadzhiev was arrested in Dagestan on charges of financing terrorism – a far more serious than those brought against Golunov. During his annual televised call-in show held on June 20, Vladimir Putin said he is against relaxing Russia’s criminal code on illegal drugs that served as a basis of several high-profile cases, including that of Golunov. This means that journalists should beware of alike provocations. A few years ago, fabricated charges on drug possessing were filed against Taisiya Osipova, a Smolensk activist for the organization „A Different Russia.” She was sentenced to 10 years in prison, but she was later freed on parole. Among those who were placed under custody are also Leah Milushkina, an activist with the Open Russia opposition movement, and her husband, Artyom. Both were arrested in January after investigators said they had found a package of amphetamine during a search of the Milushkins’ home. Also, Oyub Titiev, the head of the Chechnya division of the Memorial human rights center, was convicted of possessing drugs. Although his case gained international notoriety and Titiev was conditionally released from custody, it was believed that he was arrested on trumped-on charges aimed at ruining the activist’s good name. The cases of Titiev and Golunov shows that massive international outcry, along with strong support from Russian organizations, is the only way to force the authorities to make concessions. But this does not alter the overall view of Russian media, with the free and independent ones having been pushed to a narrowing margin. Journalists dubbed as particularly insubordinate and threatening the authority are being targeted to the same extent as Golunov was or, more frequently, especially in the country outside, they come under attack from unknown perpetrators. Several cases led to the death of a journalist while offenders have never been detected. Almost thirteen years have passed since Anna Politkovskaya was killed and the situation has dramatically deteriorated ever since. And the authority has at its disposal a wide range of tools for exerting pressure or restraining the media. But apart from tightening regulations allowing the state to close some media and punish those that dare to criticize authorities, there remains a matter of ownership. Not only is the Russian state in charge of controlling state-run media but it holds stakes at several private-owned broadcasting companies, mostly through significant state holdings, including Gazprom Media. Russia’s authorities benefit from this privilege, calling for sacking uncomfortable journalist, blocking sensitive topics or even firing the entire editorial staff, as was the latest example of the Kommersant daily newspaper.
The Kremlin claims almost entire control over television and much of the print media. But one could say that there is still the Internet. But this is also where censorship sneaked into, with technological solutions borrowed from Russia’s Chinese peers being gradually introduced and used in a way more effective manner. The Kremlin’s influence has gone so far that even Facebook or Google are now in trouble while prospects for the future are getting worse as Putin’s popularity ratings keep dropping, prompting the president to practice despotism to maintain rules over the country – which will be equivalent to media gagging.
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