Security officers are seen at penal detention center No. 1 in Moscow, Russia, on January 19, 2021. Authorities recently warned several journalists, media outlets, and social media companies not to cover upcoming protests. (AFP/Natalie Kolesnikova)

Russian authorities warn journalists, social media platforms, and news outlets ahead of pro-Navalny protests

New York, January 21, 2021 – Russian authorities should cease intimidating and harassing journalists covering protests in the country, and allow members of the press to work freely, the Committee to Protect Journalists said today.

Since yesterday, police and the country’s media regulator have issued warnings to at least four journalists, as well as to news outlets and social media platforms, discouraging them from covering protests in support of jailed opposition leader Alexei Navalny, scheduled for January 23, according to news reports.

Authorities arrested Navalny, an opposition politician and an anti-corruption blogger, on January 17 when he returned to Russia from Germany, where he had been hospitalized after being poisoned, allegedly by Russian authorities, in August, according to news reports.

“Despite being poisoned and repeatedly thrown into jail, Alexei Navalny refuses to go away, so Russian authorities will likely try to make him and his supporters disappear via censorship,” said Gulnoza Said, CPJ’s Europe and Central Asia program coordinator. “Journalists must be allowed to report freely and safely on crucial political developments in the country – even the ones that authorities are afraid of.”

Yesterday, Russian state media regulator Roskomnadzor sent formal notifications to social media networks Vkontakte and TikTok, demanding they remove all calls to underage people to participate in unsanctioned protests, according to statements by the regulator and news reports.

Today, the regulator published a statement threatening to fine internet platforms for hosting “calls to minors to participate in the unsanctioned rallies,” and the prosecutor general’s office demanded the regulator restrict access to websites that make such calls, according to news reports and a post by the prosecutor general’s office on its official Telegram page.

If they do not comply, platforms and news outlets can face fines of up to 4,000,000 rubles (US$54,120), according to Russian law. In 2019, authorities fined an activist working at a regional office of Navalny’s political organization 30,000 rubles (US$406) for allegedly “involving minors” in a protest, according to reports.

Also today, police in Moscow gave a written warning to Sergey Smirnov, chief editor of the independent human rights news website Mediazona, according to news reports and Smirnov, who spoke with CPJ in a phone interview.

The warning, which CPJ reviewed, was signed by Moscow central district prosecutor Boris Grigoryev, and stated that authorities were aware that Smirnov had posted about the upcoming protests on Twitter, and threatened “administrative and criminal responsibility” if he was found to have organized unsanctioned rallies.

Smirnov told CPJ that his only post on Twitter in relation to the protests was noting the cold weather conditions that are expected that day.

Moscow police also called freelance journalist Anastasia Lotaryova today, and summoned her to the district police department for what police called a “prophylactic talk,” according to news reports, a Facebook post by the journalist, and Lotaryova, who spoke with CPJ via messaging app.

She told CPJ that she refused to go to the police station, and that an officer asked her to “promise him” that she would stay away from the protests, which she refused to do.

Moscow police also attempted to hold such a talk today with Aleksandr Pluschev, anchor at the liberal radio station Ekho Moskvy, but he was not home at the time, according to a Telegram post by the journalist and news reports.

Also today, police in Pskov, in northwestern Russia, went to the apartment of Svetlana Prokopyeva, a regional correspondent for the U.S. Congress-funded broadcaster Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty, and attempted to give her a written warning encouraging her to stay away from the protests, she wrote on Facebook. She wrote in her post that post she refused to accept the written warning, and that it was “illegal” to tell journalists which events to attend.

Prokopyeva received CPJ’s International Press Freedom Award in 2020.

“I think that there is a big danger of journalists’ detentions at the rallies,” Smirnov told CPJ. “I am afraid we are getting close to the Belarusian scenario, when journalists who cover rallies are detained for ‘participating’ in them.”  

Belarusian authorities detained dozens of journalists in 2020 who covered protests against President Aleksandr Lukashenko; at least 10 remained behind bars at the time of CPJ’s 2020 prison census.

CPJ emailed Roskomnadzor and the prosecutor general’s office for comment, but did not receive any replies.