A police officer is seen in Moscow, Russia, on July 1, 2020. Authorities have recently harassed and attacked journalists covering a nationwide vote. (Reuters/Maxim Shemetov)

Russian journalists attacked, harassed while covering vote for Putin to remain in power

Vilnius, Lithuania, July 1, 2020 – Russian authorities should ensure that journalists are able to cover the country’s ongoing vote freely, and should refrain from harassing and detaining members of the press, the Committee to Protect Journalists said today.

Since June 21, authorities have attacked, arrested, or harassed at least five journalists in the lead-up to today’s plebiscite on amendments to the country’s constitution, according to news reports. If the referendum passes, President Vladimir Putin would be able to stay in power through 2036; early voting on the measure began on June 25, according to the website of the country’s parliament.

“Russian authorities are demonstrating fear of criticism and dissent on proposed amendments to the constitution as they punish journalists for reporting outside of the Kremlin’s narrative,” said CPJ Europe and Central Asia Program Coordinator Gulnoza Said, in New York. “Attacks and other forms of harassment of journalists should be properly investigated, the perpetrators held accountable. Journalists should be free to report on what Russian authorities have called a historic referendum.”     

On June 21, Moscow police arrested Pyotr Verzilov, publisher of the independent human rights news website Mediazona, charged him with hoologanism, and sentenced him to 15 days of administrative arrest, according to news reports.

Russian Investigative Committee representative Rustam Gabdulin said authorities raided Verzilov’s home and arrested him because Mediazona “publishes [much] information about political prosecution in Russia and creates a negative attitude towards law enforcement agencies,” according to a report by the outlet, which quoted Gabdulin.

On June 25, Moscow authorities launched an investigation into Pavel Lobkov, a reporter with independent broadcaster Dozhd, for alleged double-voting after he voted both in-person and online as part of a news investigation, according to news reports.

Authorities threatened Lobkov that he could face a 30,000 ruble fine under the administrative code, according to reports.

Also on June 25, an election officer cursed at a journalist working with the news website Zak5.ru who was covering the vote at St. Petersburg’s Nevsky regional polling station, and threatened the reporter, whose name was not disclosed, with legal penalties if they photographed the polling place or interviewed voters, according to a report by U.S. Congress-funded broadcaster Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty.

On June 28, police in the city of Syktyvkar detained LGBTQ blogger Nina Popugaeva after she had published a video blog on social media website VKontakte criticizing the proposed constitutional amendments, according to independent news website MBKh Media

Popugaeva, who runs a blog on the news website 7X7, was charged with “publishing information disrespectful of the constitution” and released; if convicted she could be fined up to 100,000 rubles (US$ 1,400), according to that report.

Yesterday, a police officer and an election observer from the ruling United Russia party attacked David Frenkel, a correspondent for Mediazona, at a polling station in central St. Petersburg, according to a report by his employer and video of the attack aired by Dozhd. 

Frenkel said that the police officer pushed him out of the polling station, twisted his arm, and hit him, and then the election observer stepped on his injured arm, breaking it, according to those reports. 

The outlet’s chief editor, Sergei Smirnov, told CPJ via phone that Frenkel will have to undergo surgery in his arm. Frenkel’s lawyer Olga Karacheva told CPJ over the phone that she would file a complaint to the police. 

In an interview, the election observer said that Frenkel did not have permission to film at the polling place because he was not properly registered with the electoral commission.

The Russian Investigative Committee, the country’s federal law enforcement body, released a statement on June 30 saying that it had launched a preliminary investigation into the attack.

CPJ called the Investigative Committee’s St. Petersburg branch for comment, and an officer on duty who did not give his name directed all questions to the Central Electoral Commission. 

When CPJ called the press center of the Central Electoral Commission, the body that oversees elections, a person who answered the phone refused to comment. CPJ called Moscow and Syktyvkar authorities for comment, but no one answered.