Paris, September 8, 2022—Russian authorities should stop using investigations into so-called “fake” information about the Russian military to harass journalists, and should let the media work freely, the Committee to Protect Journalists said Thursday.
On Thursday, September 8, authorities searched the homes of at least five journalists in cities across Russia over their alleged connection to Ilya Ponomarev, a former Duma member charged with spreading false information about the army, according to multiple news reports.
“Russian authorities’ harassment of journalists throughout the country over their alleged connections to a man accused of spreading false information about the military is just another example of how the country’s government will jump at any chance to investigate members of the press,” said Carlos Martinez de la Serna, CPJ’s program director, in New York. “Authorities must stop targeting journalists with searches, interrogations, and other forms of harassment, and allow them to work freely.”
On August 21, Ponomarev claimed that a car bombing that killed Darya Dugina, the daughter of one of Russian President Vladimir Putin’s allies, was organized by a group called the National Republican Army, which Ponomarev said aimed to overthrow Putin’s government, according to news reports. Ponomarev, who lives in Ukraine, was charged on August 9 under a Russian law that bans spreading “fakes” about the military.
Convictions under that law impose prison sentences of up to 15 years and fines of up to 5 million rubles (US$82,000).
On Thursday, police in the southern city of Rostov-on-Don searched the home of Bella Nasibyan, a reporter with independent news website RusNews, and took her to the local Center for Combating Extremism for questioning, according to media reports.
Authorities froze her bank accounts earlier than day and later released Nasibyan after naming her as a witness in the case against Ponomarev, according to those sources. CPJ contacted Nasibyan’s outlet via messaging app but did not receive a reply.
Police in the central city of Yekaterinburg also searched the apartment of Vladislav Postnikov, editor-in-chief of the independent Vecherniye Vedomosti newspaper, and seized his electronic devices, according to media reports.
Postnikov, who was not home during the search, later appeared for questioning at the local Center for Combating Extremism, where authorities said he was also a witness in the Ponomarev case, according to several media reports. CPJ contacted Vecherniye Vedomosti via messaging app but did not receive any reply.
In a copy of authorities’ search warrant published by Vecherniye Vedomosti, investigators alleged that Postnikov gave Ponomarev materials that the ex-Duma member had used “to discredit the Russian army.” In that post, his outlet said that Postnikov was not familiar with Ponomarev and had condemned his statements.
Previously, Vecherniye Vedomosti was fined 150,000 rubles (US$2,415) and 200,000 rubles (US$3,290) for discrediting the Russian army; Postnikov was fined 100,000 rubles (US$1,650) as CPJ documented and media reported.
Also on Thursday, police searched the homes of Ruslan Sukhushin, a photographer, in Moscow; Yulia Glazova, a reporter with news website 86.ru, in the central city of Tyumen; and Viktor Zyryanov, a founder of local independent news website Orlets, in the town of Reutov in the Moscow region, news reports said.
All three were also named as witnesses in Ponomarev’s case, and Sukhushin and Glazova were released later on Thursday, those reports said, adding that authorities seized technical equipment from their homes.
Zyryanov told CPJ via email that he was not home during the search and that the police took his wife’s laptop and flash drives.
“I consider what is happening to be systematic pressure on the last remaining independent journalists who are not yet in prison and have not left the country,” he told CPJ.
CPJ emailed Glazova’s outlet for more information on the raids, but did not receive any responses. CPJ was unable to immediately find contact information for Sukhushin.
Russian authorities announced on Thursday that they had taken “investigative action in several Russian regions” against the administrators of February Morning, a news project Ponomarev launched in 2022 on YouTube and Telegram, according to Russian state news agency RIA Novosti.
February Morning editors denied any connection with the five journalists targeted in Thursday’s raids, adding that they supported the journalists and “oppose the repression of independent media.”
“Under the pretext of combating ‘fakes about the army,’ a total cleansing of independent journalism in the regions is taking place,” the outlet said.
Ponomarev tweeted about the searches, writing that Russian authorities were misguided in their search, writing, “If you’re looking for NRA [National Republican Army] cells among regional journalists, you’re even dumber than we thought!”
CPJ was unable to contact the Russian Interior Ministry for comment as its website did not load.
[Editors’ note: This article has been updated to include Zyryanov’s response to CPJ.]