Russian journalists detained, harassed when covering local elections

New York, March 12, 2007—The Committee to Protect Journalists is concerned by reports that police and security services harassed several journalists covering local parliamentary elections on Sunday.

Police in the southern city of Samara detained reporter Pavel Sedakov and photographer Artyom Pigarov of the independent business daily Kommersant when the two tried to interview a local leader of the opposition National Bolshevik Party (NBP). Police had just broken up an unapproved NBP demonstration, according to local press reports. The journalists were detained as witnesses and held three hours for questioning, according to a source at Kommersant and local press reports.

Supporters of NBP also staged an unauthorized demonstration at a polling station in the town of Odintsovo, south of Moscow. Local police detained Kommersant reporter Dmitry Kostyukov, Reuters photographer Denis Sinyakov, and RIA Novosti reporter Ilya Petalev who were covering the rally as part of their election reporting. The three were held at a local police station for six hours before being released without charge, according to CPJ sources and local press reports.

“Detaining reporters covering a newsworthy event such as a demonstration creates a chilling environment ahead of national elections scheduled in the next 12 months,” CPJ Executive Director Joel Simon said. “These incidents send an intimidating message to Russian journalists.”

In a separate incident, several plainclothes officers approached Marko Shakhbanov, a reporter for the independent newspaper Chernovik, while he was covering the election in Makhachkala, capital of the southern republic of Dagestan. The officers, who did not identify themselves, demanded that Shakhbanov stop taking photos inside a Makhachkala polling station, according to the independent news Web site Kavkazsky Uzel. When Shakhbanov refused, the men seized his camera and deleted all images before returning it to him. He was prevented from working any further, according to local press reports.

Security agents also briefly detained Novye Izvestiya reporter Nataliya Shergina while she was interviewing voters in Saint Petersburg. Private security agents hired by the electoral commission and local police detained Shergina for allegedly reporting less than 50 meters (165 feet) away from the polling station. Vyacheslav Stepchenko, press secretary for the Leningrad region, told Novye Izvestiya that such reporting is unlawful, according to local press reports. Shergina was not charged.