New York, October 29, 2020 – Russian authorities should immediately return equipment confiscated from journalist Yana Toporkova and ensure that members of the press are not harassed by law enforcement, the Committee to Protect Journalists said today.
On October 2, three men in plainclothes who identified themselves as police officers raided Toporkova’s apartment in the southern village of Yablonovskiy, seized her laptop, phone, router, and notes, and detained her, according to news reports and the journalist, who spoke with CPJ in a phone interview.
Following the raid, the officers drove Toporkova, a reporter who covers regional news for the independent news agency Region Online, to Cherkessk, a city more than 200 miles from Yablonovskiy, where they questioned her as a witness in an investigation into alleged false information published on Instagram by the independent Cherkessk-based news website Politika 09, according to the journalist and those reports.
Toporkova told CPJ she had no connection to Politika 09. Russian authorities opened an investigation into the website in June for allegedly “disseminating false news” in its reports on the COVID-19 pandemic, as CPJ documented; the outlet denied those charges.
Authorities allowed Toporkova to return home without charge on October 3, and as of today have not returned the equipment they confiscated, she said.
“Russian authorities must immediately return journalist Yana Toporkova’s equipment and investigate whether her detention and surveillance were lawful,” said Gulnoza Said, CPJ’s Europe and Central Asia program coordinator. “Law enforcement officers must work to protect journalists, not intimidate and harass them. Journalists in Russia should be able to work freely and without fear.”
During the seven-hour drive from Yablonovskiy to Cherkessk, the police officers told Toporkova that they had tapped her phone and tried to persuade her to work with them generally and in relation to the Politika 09 investigation, she said.
When they arrived in Cherkessk at about 9 p.m., the officers took Toporkova to the Ministry of Interior’s Center for Combatting Terrorism, where they played a recording of a July 2020 phone conversation she had with a friend, she said, adding that the audio did not link her to Politika 09. Authorities then released Toporkova and told her to come back the next day, she said.
On October 3, officers interrogated Toporkova at the Investigative Committee office in Cherkessk in the presence of her lawyer, Aleksey Shestak, the journalist told CPJ. After questioning, the officers released her, saying that she was considered a witness in the investigation into Politika 09, Toporkova said.
Aleksey Avanesyan, another lawyer representing Toporkova, told CPJ in a phone interview that he had filed a request to the Karachay-Cherkessia Investigative Committee to return Toporkova’s equipment and reimburse 1,000 rubles ($13) she spent on transportation home from the interrogation, as mandated by Russian law. Toporkova told CPJ that she cannot work without her laptop.
Avanesyan told CPJ that he also asked the Investigative Committee to present the court’s approval of the warrant for the raid on Toporkova’s apartment, and protested that police took the journalist to an interrogation site without any previous warning or summons. Avanesyan told CPJ that he still has not received any response from authorities.
In a November 11 email, Colonel Z. M. Dzhankezova, Acting Head of the First Department for the Investigation of High Priority Cases with the Investigative Committee told CPJ that Toporkova’s confiscated equipment is currently in possession of court experts, and the court will consider its return after the investigation is completed. The committee also claimed that it had received no requests from Avanesyan, and that the Karachay-Cherkessia court had on October 5, 2020 approved the warrant for Toporkova’s apartment search. The committee did not address CPJ’s question regarding the reimbursement of the journalist’s transportation expenses.
[Editor’s note: The 12th paragraph has been updated with a November 11 comment from a representative of the Karachay-Cherkessia Investigative Committee.]