Russian journalist Svetlana Prokopyeva spoke with CPJ about facing terrorism charges for her reporting. (Artiom Avanesov)
Journalist Svetlana Prokopyeva is due to face trial over comments she made on a radio show in 2018. (Artiom Avanesov)

Russian journalist Svetlana Prokopyeva says charges against her are ‘an act of intimidation’

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In February 2019, police in Pskov, in northwestern Russia, raided the home of journalist Svetlana Prokopyeva.

Authorities launched an investigation against Prokopyeva, a stringer and freelance correspondent for the U.S. Congress-funded Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty’s Russian service and the liberal Ekho Moskvy radio station, over comments she made on a November 2018 Ekho Moskvy broadcast.

In that report, she discussed the case of a 17-year-old who detonated a bomb inside the Arkhangelsk office of the Federal Security Service, and argued that growing up in a repressive state, where the government does not tolerate peaceful activism, could be a significant factor in radicalizing youth.

In September, authorities charged Prokopyeva with “justifying terrorism” in her comments. If convicted, she could face up to seven years in prison. Prokopyeva was due to face trial on those charges on April 20, but the hearing was postponed due to the coronavirus pandemic.

While Prokopyeva awaits trial, her bank accounts remain frozen, and authorities have not returned her computer, which they confiscated during the raid.

CPJ spoke to Prokopyeva in a phone interview last week. Her answers have been translated from Russian and edited for length and clarity.

What are authorities’ main arguments in your case?

It is a criminal case, but I simply did my journalistic work. I think all the arguments investigators have made against me completely lack logic. They hired several experts to analyze my broadcast, and they all made different cases.

One expert said that if I did not sharply express a negative attitude towards a terrorist, that constituted the justification of terrorism. Another stated that saying a man was put in such conditions where he has no other means to express his attitudes was also a justification of terrorism.

The last said that using such words as “terrorism” and “an explosion” were ways of justifying terrorism. I think it is complete nonsense.

In my story, there were no calls to terrorism, no propaganda, no discussion of the ideology of terrorism, no calls to make explosions. There is nothing like that in my script. So they have to invent some completely foolish arguments against me.

Why do you think you are being targeted with these charges?

I have always been an independent journalist and always worked in independent media. In this sense, I have long been in conflict [with authorities], but I had no direct encounters with the authorities.

I even was a member of a public council at the Ministry of Interior [a local independent public body]. I worked there for several years and everything seemed normal. On the other hand, I volunteered [at the local branch of the March 2018 presidential election campaign of Russian opposition figure] Alexey Navalny. Maybe because of that I have attracted their attention. I don’t know.

I don’t doubt that my case is an act of intimidation. It makes no difference if they jail me or not. Almost everyone who objectively reported on this event in Arkhangelsk was taken to court.

There are dozens of similar criminal cases in Russia. Some people got real jail terms. I don’t have all the details about such cases, but they exist. So far, the majority of journalists have been fined. But, as a rule, authorities take to court those who are active participants of ecological and political protests, and journalists.

How would you describe the state of independent media in Russia?

Russia has not had press freedom for a long time. People who see this only now were sleeping and did not see that the pressure has been increasing over the last 15 years – slowly, step by step.

Authorities [first] stopped talking with independent media. Later on, they stopped talking with the political opposition. Now, opposition politicians and some journalists are simply jailed.

I, as a journalist, saw this trend long ago. Currently, authorities seem to have a kind of paranoia. They started to see Russian people, Russian journalists as enemies only because they cooperate with the West.

What can be worse? Only if they forbid freedom of movement, and 100 percent forbid freedom of expression. In fact, it is going in this direction now. I cannot imagine that it can be worse.

Simply, it is high time to see that everything is really bad concerning freedom of press and human rights. People are already used to not saying what they think, not arguing, and authorities treating them like garbage.

Have you received support throughout your case?

I have a lot of support. Journalists write a lot about my case. International organizations express support for me.

It is a pity that our authorities think only about themselves and are not ready to see that the world is different than they imagine.