On January 23, 2021, protesters in Kazan in central Russia demonstrate against the arrest of opposition leader Alexei Navalny. Journalists covering the nationwide protests faced arrest and harassment. (Aleksandr Kopylov)

To police, ‘the camera is like a red cloth to a bull’: four journalists on covering Russia’s pro-Navalny protests

On January 23, Russia erupted in nationwide demonstrations against the January 17 arrest of Alexei Navalny. The opposition leader was taken into custody at a Moscow airport when he flew home after five months in Berlin, where he was undergoing medical treatment after having been poisoned. (He alleges the Russian government is responsible; Russian president Vladimir Putin denies this, according to reports.) 

Law enforcement officers detained, beat, and otherwise interfered with the work of dozens of journalists covering protests in at least 20 cities, as CPJ documented this week. According to reports, some journalists are now under police investigation for having allegedly violated quarantine rules by participating in a mass event. 

In the run-up to the next countrywide pro-Navalny protest, expected to take place on January 31, CPJ spoke via phone with four regional journalists about their experiences on January 23. The interviews have been edited for length and clarity. CPJ is not identifying journalists to whom it hasn’t spoken directly, or hasn’t previously reported on, in order to protect them from potential reprisal. 

Yekaterina Biyak, reporter with independent news website Activatica, based in Khabarovsk in Russia’s far east  

(Yekaterina Biyak)

You covered the protests in Khabarovsk on January 23. Did the police try to interfere with your work? 

Yes, police in Khabarovsk began harassing journalists ahead of the pro-Navalny protests, on January 21 and 22. Many journalists, including my Activatica colleague, received intimidating calls from the law enforcement telling them not to come to the demonstration of January 23, or they would “end up in a detention center.” The police did not try to justify this intimidation of journalists, they just gave warnings.  

Also on January 23, police officers were literally keeping my other colleague, a correspondent with Arsenievskie Vesti, from leaving her apartment building. Several officers stationed themselves inside her building, and when she tried to go outside to cover the protest, they told her that if she tried to leave, they would immediately arrest her. They gave no explanations, and I think the situation was grave enough for her to not resist, all she could do was to stay home. 

I started January 23 by going to the court to bring some personal items to [a different] colleague from Arsenievskie Vesti newspaper, detained the night before for allegedly participating in an unsanctioned action of January 18 that he in fact covered as a journalist. I later heard from my colleagues that soon after I left the court, two policemen came there and were looking for me, but thankfully I was already gone. 

What happened later in the day when the protests started? Were police still detaining journalists?

Yes. The main protest was going to take place at noon at Lenin Square in downtown, the usual place where all the rallies have been taking place in Khabarovsk. Two journalists, Daniil [Kulikov] and Sergey [Plotnikov] from [YouTube news channel] RusNews, made a mistake of coming to that square approximately half an hour before the protests started and police detained them almost immediately. They had their press cards and letters of assignment on them, of course, but that made no difference. 

Were you able to continue working? 

I was working simultaneously with my colleague. She got to the square and was reporting from there, and I was reporting from the streets. Neither of use was detained, thank god. My colleague was smart to come to the square a bit later, when the police were already busy with other things and could not focus on journalists. She also asked people who were in the square to help her. They surrounded her, hiding her with their bodies while she was filming, making her less visible to the police. Meanwhile, I just tried to report from the streets where the police were not present, and this way I avoided detention. 

Overall, I think that police in St. Petersburg and in Moscow are different, they are more aggressive. Here in Khabarovsk there is no true anger between the police and the journalists – even despite repressions. There’s a feeling that “everyone understands everything,” and everyone is in a way a hostage to the system: some are fighting against it and cannot do otherwise, and others are working for it because they can’t do otherwise but are in fact sympathetic to those who fight against it. 

You covered the summer 2020 protests against the arrest of Khabarovk’s former governor, Sergei Furgal, on involvement multiple murders. Protesters said the arrest was politically motivated. You were detained by police then. What safety measures are you taking now? 

It is important to always meet all legal requirements – to have all the necessary press regalia on you, which of course police ignore, but still, they are important. I also warned my editorial office that I would be covering a protest. It is cold here now – negative 30 to 35 Celsius [-22 to -31 degrees Farenheit], so I always get dressed warmly but comfortably, so that I could run if I need to. 

We [local journalists] also have our “little suitcases” prepared, just like in Stalin’s 1937 [the year of former Soviet premier Joseph Stalin’s “great purge” in the USSR, when political dissidents kept suitcases packed in case they were sent to prison or labor camps]. I personally have a small cosmetic bag that I carry with me that contains a toothbrush, a bottle with face wash, and a hairbrush for emergency needs in case of an arrest. But I also have a bigger bag at home with clothes and some books so in case I am placed in detention, I would give the key to my apartment to someone who would bring it to me if I am in jail. 

Are you going to continue reporting on protests in Khabarovsk, and do you ever feel any fear?

Of course, I am going to continue. Both protests, which merged together here in Khabarovsk – the ones supporting Furgal and the ones for Navalny – are in support of political prisoners, freedom of speech, and against Putin. It is very hard to take away the sense of dignity from Khabarovsk people, the sense of dignity that urged them to come out to the streets half a year ago. Furgal was the starting mechanism, but people came out for their own dignity and self-respect. The same could be said for the rest of the country. It is not even as much about Navalny, we just cannot continue living like this anymore. 

And regarding fear – what fear is there to talk about? When I left the detention center after my arrest, one of my friends texted me saying, “Now you also have a mark of an honest person of the XXI century.” Of course, it is not pleasant to be in jail, but it is not lethal, and it is not the reason to give up one’s convictions. And as a journalist, my strongest conviction is my right to have the freedom of speech, and I will keep fighting for that freedom. 

[Editor’s note: CPJ emailed the press service of the Ministry of Internal Affairs in the Khabarovsk region for comment, but did not receive an immediate response.]

Timofey Yefremov, deputy editor and correspondent at independent news website Yakutia.Info in the eastern Siberian city of Yakutsk 

(Timofey Yefremov)

Tell us about covering the January 23 protests in Yakutsk. 

On that day it was minus 52 degrees Celsius [-61.6 degrees Farenheit] in Yakutsk, quite cold, but we are used to it – it is wintertime, after all. My colleague and I showed up at the city square where the protests were to take place ahead of time, but we were waiting in a café nearby to stay warm. 

Here, as a journalist, you’ve got to first of all properly dress in order to be able to cover outside events in these temperatures. It is good to wear a down coat and a hybrid hat/balaclava, to cover your face from freezing, ski pants, and special boots, preferably with fur, regular boots would not work – people freeze their toes off sometimes. It is also hard to work with the camera, the battery dies very fast.  We also rely on moving around. If you stop, you freeze.

The visibility was very low on that day, one could see no farther than 30 to 40 meters [about 98 to 131 feet] ahead, so at first we could not tell if there was anyone protesting at all. But then we saw that there were both the protesters and the police. About 100, maybe up to 150 people came to protest overall, and at first there were more protesters than policemen, but towards the end of the demonstration there seemed to be more police than the people protesting. 

How did police react? 

A number of protesters were detained, but surprisingly, the police did not touch the journalists – they were staying away from us altogether. I saw many – at least five – law enforcement officers in plainclothes walking around with their own cameras and filming the protesters, so I thought that maybe the police did not detain us because they did not want to confuse the journalists with them. 

I have to say that both sides, the police and the people, avoided open confrontation. The police announced to the people on the loudspeakers to disperse, and announced that if people did not go away, they would have to use force. But also, I noticed that the police did not dare to take the people from the crowd, probably in order not to provoke [the protesters], they were picking up the loners who were standing outside the crowd. 

What’s the general atmosphere? Are people overall supportive of the protests? 

At first, I was wondering if people would come out to protest, whether they would support this rally – especially because of the cold weather – but they did. And overall, I think that people are not even as much coming out to the streets in support of Navalny, but they want to express their disagreement with what is going on, with the lawlessness, with the social inequality, with the economic unfairness. Navalny was just a trigger that allowed people to come out and voice the problems that people have. 

Do you plan to continue covering the protests, and do you have any fear of being detained during your coverage? 

Of course, I will do my best to continue the coverage. But police should not detain me, what for? We journalists, we are just doing our job. I think in our region, the authorities have always had a level of respect toward the press, there is no such habit of detaining the journalists for no reason, they don’t want us to be their enemies. 

At the same time, the “vertical of power” [the centralization of political control] in the country is strengthening, the authorities are trying to tighten up the bolts – so we will see. But I am sure that if the local authorities try to restrain the freedom of speech, there will be strong pushback against that. 

[Editor’s note: CPJ emailed the press service of the Ministry of Internal
Affairs in the republic of Sakha, which includes 
Yakutsk, but did not receive an immediate reply.]

Marina Bezmaternykh, freelance correspondent for Mediazona, a news website focused on human rights in Kazan in central Russia

(Anna Tarakanova)

Tell about your day on January 23. You were covering the protests and then you were detained – how did it happen?

I took a taxi to the city’s downtown where the protests were planned to start. While I was in the taxi, I started receiving messages that several journalists had been detained. These journalists were taken to the police for an “identity check,” and they were released after that without any charges, but during that time they could not cover the protests, although it was their right to do so. 

There were about 3,000 to 4,000 people on the streets on that day. I think it surprised everyone, the sheer scale of the protest; it has been probably 10 years since there have been any big protest rallies in Kazan. 

I was covering the protests for about two hours, and then the police detained me and took me in a bus to the police station. I had a note of journalistic assignment with me and showed it to them. I asked one of the police officers why they detained me while I was on assignment, and I had the impression that he didn’t know the law. He responded something like, “There is not much difference between a journalist and a protester.” It was as if he did not see any legal difference between the two. 

It was my first ever detention, and now I am thinking that I should have probably behaved differently. For instance, I agreed to let them take my fingerprints, which I now think I shouldn’t have done. After an hour or so they released me without charges, and even apologized for having detained me. 

How did you prepare to cover the protests, and what will you do in the future to protect yourself? 

Before leaving to cover the protest, I would make sure to alert my colleague about it, so that in case of detention he could get in touch with my parents and publish the news. I also think that I might have been detained because I stayed in one place for a long time, and so the next time I would try to move around more. 

[Editor’s note: CPJ emailed the press service of the Ministry of Internal Affairs in the republic of Tatarstan, which includes Kazan, but did not receive an immediate reply.]

Murad Muradov, correspondent for independent news website Kavkazsky Uzel in the southern city of Makhachkala

(Murad Muradov)

Could you describe what you saw covering the January 23 protests in Makhachkala? 

By the time my colleagues and I came to the Lenin Square, where the protests were supposed to take place, there were no people protesting but there was a police bus and a number of policemen. We were just approaching the square and my colleague from Kavkazsky Uzel started filming. The police approached us immediately, asked us why we were filming, and demanded us to stop. We showed them our press cards, and they calmed down a bit. 

I later learned that the police rudely spoke with my colleague, even pushed her, and while she is a very experienced field reporter, she told me she had never seen so much open aggression from the police. 

Later I learned that police also detained my colleague from the newspaper Chernovik, Inna Khatukayeva, and did it in a very harsh manner – they grabbed her and almost pushed her to the ground. 

How did you end up being detained and what happened next? 

The policemen saw that I was speaking with the detained people who were sitting in the police van and told me to leave. I showed them my press card yet again, but they said that it was easy to make a fake one and ordered me to get into the van. I decided not to resist, especially as there was not much going on at the square anymore. The police arrested everyone who was there, even if they were just sitting on the bench and not protesting. 

When we got to the police department in Sovietsky [a local district], I started telling the policemen again that I was a journalist, and that my detention was illegal. I called the police press secretary, and spoke loudly with her, so that the policemen could hear my complaints. At that moment, the police officers who detained me left, probably to go back to the square, and the police inside the building did not notice me – there were tens of people brought in, so they seemed to be overwhelmed. In that way, they “lost” me, and I was not taken inside the police building. I still stayed near it, interviewing the incoming people, speaking with other journalists who came by. In any case, at the time all the main action shifted from Lenin Square to that police building.

What are your plans in the near future, will you continue covering the protests? 

Yes of course, I will, if there are any more protests to come. Here in Makhachkala, police always target and arrest those who film or photograph the protests and detentions – the camera is like a red cloth to a bull for them. It is so strange to see how in Moscow and St. Petersburg, journalists can film the detentions of the protesters, and the police let them do this — here it is nearly impossible. 

Over a year ago, there was an almost comical case, when the police were detaining my colleague and I was trying to film that, so they detained me. Then, a human rights activist who was at the scene was filming them detaining me, so they detained him as well, and then detained another person who was filming him filming me being detained. 

As a rule, despite the fact that I always introduce myself and have a press card on me, the police still detain me and then say that they “did not know that I was a journalist.” For the next time, I do plan on getting a vest marked “Press,” so that it is more immediately visible that I am a journalist. Not that it matters to the police, but it would make it easier to defend my case later in court if I am unlawfully detained. 

[Editor’s note: CPJ emailed the press service of the Ministry of Internal Affairs in the republic of Dagestan, which includes Makhachkala, for comment but did not receive an immediate reply.]