A dozen journalists detained, beaten at rally

New York, December 22, 2008–The Committee to Protect Journalists is incensed by the violent attack on journalists covering a Sunday demonstration in Vladivostok, the regional capital of Primorsky Krai in Russia’s Far East. 

Moscow authorities sent special riot police units, known as OMON, to Vladivostok to disperse protesters rallying peacefully for a second day against the government’s plans to increase tariffs on imported cars. At least a dozen journalists were detained and beaten, according to local and international press reports.

“We call on Russian authorities to immediately investigate this unjustified use of police force against journalists and peaceful protesters, and bring those responsible for it to justice,” said CPJ Europe and Central Asia Program Coordinator Nina Ognianova. “In a democratic country like Russia, citizens have the right to express discontent with their government and journalists have the right to cover protests without fear of reprisal.”

On Sunday, several hundred people gathered in Vladivostok’s central square to voice discontent with the government’s decision to raise tariffs; the proposal is aimed at stimulating domestic car manufacturers. Vladivostok is Russia’s largest port city on the Pacific and a gateway for Japanese car imports. According to the independent Moscow-based newspaper Novaya Gazeta, the proposed increase would hit Russia’s Far East the hardest–at least 2 million people and their families depend on the car importing industry.

According to The New York Times, the weekend demonstrations were organized by the Federation of Russian Car Owners, a grassroots advocacy group. Russian news reports, including one by the independent business daily Kommersant, said the demonstrators had gathered around the city’s Christmas tree and were not provoking the OMON units. The police hit the protesters with clubs and shoved them into police vans, according to local and international news reports. The press service of Primorsky Krai’s police acknowledged the detention of 61 people over the weekend, all on the charge of participating in unsanctioned rallies. Witnesses put the number much higher–at 200, according to local press reports.

At least a dozen journalists were briefly detained and beaten by OMON, the local reports said. Among them were cameraman Nikolai Unagayev, with the Japanese television station NHK; reporters Maksim Borisov and Nikolai Petrov with St. Petersburg’s 5 Kanal television station; journalists Sergei Litus and Roman Stadnov with the Moscow-based television station TV Tsentr; Channel One national television reporter Yan Savitsky; reporter Oleg Zhunusov with the Moscow-based daily Izvestiya; reporter Vladimir Sayapin with the Russian news agency Interfax; and reporter Fyodor Gurko with the Vladivostok-based regional television station PTR. According to Novy Region, police beat Gurko badly and he is now hospitalized.

The Vladivostok protests are part of a wave of anti-government demonstrations over the proposed tariff increase that took place in several Russian cities this weekend, including Kazan, Yekaterinburg, Belgorod, Novosibirsk, Omsk, Krasnoyarsk, and Khabarovsk, Kommersant reported. The New York Times noted on Sunday that while the rallies gathered several hundred of people at a time, they were the most visible sign of discontent with Russia’s government over the deepening economic crisis. The recent plummeting of global oil prices has led to a growing public anxiety and a decrease in the administration’s popularity in Russia, the Times said.