Vilnius, Lithuania, April 8, 2021 — Russian authorities should drop all charges against journalist Daria Komarova and allow her and other members of the press to cover protests without fear of reprisal, the Committee to Protect Journalists said today.
Yesterday, the Leninsky district court in Cheboksary, the capital of the central Russian republic of Chuvashia, held the first hearing in the trial of Komarova, a freelance correspondent for the U.S. Congress-funded broadcaster Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty’s (RFE/RL) regional outlet Idel.Realii, in relation to her coverage of protests, according to the journalist, who spoke to CPJ in a phone interview, and a report by her employer.
The hearing stemmed from the journalist’s alleged participation in a rally in support of Russian opposition figure Alexei Navalny on August 29, 2020, Komarova said. She is also due in court tomorrow to face a separate trial on charges of participating in a protest on January 31, and has a hearing on April 13, in a third trial, for her alleged participation in a protest on January 23, according to the journalist and that report.
The RFE/RL report states she covered all of those protests while on assignment for Idel.Realii.
If convicted of “participation in an unsanctioned rally” in any of those trials, she could face a fine of up to 50,000 rubles (US $651) or 15 days of administrative detention for each one, according to Russia’s administrative code.
“Russian authorities continue unjustly prosecuting and legally harassing journalists for their coverage of protests, but the measures unsurprisingly have proved incapable of stopping the protests and opposition movements themselves,” said CPJ Europe and Central Asia Program Coordinator Gulnoza Said, in New York. “Russian authorities should drop all charges against RFE/RL journalist Daria Komarova and allow her and other members of the press to work freely and safely.”
On January 23, police in Cheboksary briefly detained Komarova as she was covering protests in support of Navalny, as CPJ documented at the time. That day, Komarova had live-streamed the pro-Navalny protests while on assignment for Idel.Realii, the outlet reported.
On March 11, officers came to Komarova’s house and told her that she had been formally charged with participating in unsanctioned protests on August 29, 2020, and January 23, 2021. On March 18, the police informed her that she was formally charged with participating in an unsanctioned event on January 31, she said.
At yesterday’s court hearing, the judge commenced the trial over Komarova’s alleged involvement in the August 29 protest, but then adjourned hearings in that case until April 16, she said.
Komarova told CPJ that the judge in yesterday’s hearing requested that Roskomnadzor, the Russian state media regulator, weigh in on whether RFE/RL’s status under Russian law as a “foreign agent” affected whether she could be treated as a journalist covering those protests or as a participant in them.
In 2017, Russia’s Ministry of Justice labeled RFE/RL and its regional outlets, including Idel.Realii, as “foreign agents,” placing them under increased government scrutiny throughout all Russian republics, as CPJ documented at the time.
Rim Gilfanov, the head of Idel.Realii and RFE/RL’s Tatar-Bashkir service, told CPJ via email, “Daria has one case after another [at court], and we are closely monitoring the situation.”
RFE/RL President Jamie Fly said in a statement quoted by Idel.Realii, “The rationale offered by Russian authorities for violating RFE/RL journalist Daria Komarova’s right to report about local news events is both laughable and frightening. Journalism is not a crime.”
CPJ called the Chuvashian Ministry of Interior’s Department of Information and Public Relations for comment, but no one answered.