A police officer watches a protest against the Russian invasion of Ukraine, in Saint Petersburg, Russia on February 27, 2022. Russian authorities charged the management of Listok newspaper and Novy Fokus magazine’s chief editor Mikhail Afanasyev with spreading false information about the Russian army in April 2022. (Reuters/Anton Vaganov)

Siberian news outlets, management charged with disseminating ‘fakes’ about Russian army

Paris, April 14, 2022 — Russian authorities should immediately drop all charges against the management of Listok newspaper and Novy Fokus magazine’s chief editor Mikhail Afanasyev, and allow the press to work freely, the Committee to Protect Journalists said Thursday.

On Wednesday, April 13, law enforcement in Gorno-Altaysk, the capital of Altai republic in southern Siberia, searched the editorial office of Listok, an independent local newspaper, as well as the homes of an unknown number of its employees, and seized their phones and other technical equipment, according to media reports.

On the same day, police detained the outlet’s publisher, Sergey Mikhaylov, in Lyubertsy, a city in the Moscow region, for allegedly spreading “fakes” about the Russian military, and forcibly transported him by plane to Gorno-Altaysk, according to the same reports and Stanislav Seleznyov, a lawyer and senior partner of the Telegram channel “Setevye Svobody,” which provides legal assistance in freedom of expression cases, is familiar with Mikhaylov’s case and spoke to CPJ via messaging app.

Separately, also on April 13, police searched the home of Mikhail Afanasyev, editor-in-chief of the online magazine Novy Fokus, in Abakan, the capital of Siberia’s Khakassiya republic, seized his technical equipment, and took him to the Abakan investigative department, according to multiple reports. Afanasyev was charged later that day with spreading false information about the Russian army, according to reports.

On March 4, Russian President Vladimir Putin enacted amendments to the criminal code that impose prison terms for spreading “fake” information, specifically about the Russian military, as CPJ documented and media reported.

“These are among the first instances of the new repressive law on false information about the Russian army being used directly against a news outlet for its reporting. This sets a very worrying precedent and shows that the Russian authorities will not hesitate to put into practice a law that blatantly violates press freedom by enforcing de facto censorship,” said Gulnoza Said, CPJ’s Europe and Central Asia program coordinator, from New York. “Russian authorities must immediately release publisher Sergey Mikhaylov and chief editor Mikhail Afanasyev and drop all charges against Listok and its management.”

MVD Media, a news website linked to the Russian Interior Ministry, published a video showing the April 13 searches of Listok and the detention of Mikhaylov. According to the video, the police worked with the Altai department of the Federal Security Service and the Investigative Committee and found that from March to April 2022, “knowingly false information” about the Russian army “was publicly disseminated” by Listok “under the guise of reliable information.”

Mikhaylov was charged under Article 207.3.2.e of the criminal code for having allegedly disseminated false information on the basis of “political, ideological, racial, national or religious hatred,” according to the video. If found guilty, he faces up to 10 years in prison.

On April 14, Mikhaylov appeared before a judge in Gorno-Altaysk, who placed the journalist under arrest for two months pending investigation, according to news reports. No further information about the case was available because Mikhaylov’s lawyer was unable to contact him and a court-appointed lawyer attended the hearing, according to Seleznyov and those reports. Mikhaylov is also a member of the federal political council of PARNAS, a Russian opposition party.

Also on April 14, the Gorno-Altaysk city court fined Listok 300,000 rubles (US$3,625) and its director Olga Komarova 100,000 rubles (US$1,200) for discrediting the army, according to reports. An investigation conducted by the Ministry of Internal Affairs found that several Listok articles “discredited the use of the Armed Forces […] in the framework of the special operation in Ukraine,” in accordance with Part 1 of Article 20.3.3 of Russia’s administrative code. The fines imposed on Listok and its director are the minimum fines stipulated by this section for officials and legal entities.

On April 1, Gorno-Altaysk City Court charged Listok and Komarova with three counts each under that section. Four have already been examined, and the remaining two will be considered on April 15, according to the same reports.

Separately, on April 8, Komarova was summoned to the Gorno-Altaysk prosecutor’s officeand a case was opened against Listok for calling for sanctions against Russia under Article 20.3.4 of the administrative code after Listok chief editor Viktor Rau, in a March 30 printed article, urged the outlet’s readers to send the names of officials who support the war in Ukraine to the Telegram channel “Nuremberg Process 2.0,” according to multiple news reports.

Nuremberg Process 2.0” was created in August 2020 and publishes the names, photos, and statements of supporters of the war. Its first post is dated February 26, 2022, and its founders are unknown, according to those reports

This was the first instance of a case being opened under that section of the administrative code, which was amended due to the war, according to the Telegram channel “Setevye Svobody.” Listok faces a fine of up to 500,000 rubles (US$6,070) for this charge, according to those reports.

Russian state media regulator Roskomnadzor blocked Listok’s website on February 28, 2022, according to reports.

On April 13, Afanasyev, of Novy Fokus, was charged under Article 207.3.2.a of the criminal code for spreading false information about the Russian army “using his official position,” according to Media Rights Center, a Russian non-governmental organization. If found guilty, he faces up to 10 years in prison.

The Media Rights Center reported that Afanasyev is being held for 48 hours in a temporary detention facility. Afanasyev’s detention and charges are related to a news article about 11 members of special riot police from Khakassiya who refused to go to Ukraine, according to the Media Rights Center and independent news outlet Sota.Vision, which published a screenshot of the material. CPJ was unable to contact the Russian Interior Ministry for comment, as its website did not load. CPJ emailed Listok’s and Novy Fokus’ newsrooms but did not receive any replies.