CPJ is honored to present its 2020 International Press Freedom Award to Russian journalist Svetlana Prokopyeva.
Prokopyeva is a regional correspondent for the U.S. Congress-funded broadcaster Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty in Russia, known as Radio Svoboda. She has contributed to many local newspapers and has also worked as a BBC correspondent.
In early 2019, armed law enforcement officers raided Prokopyeva’s apartment, seized her equipment, passport, and personal belongings, and interrogated her at a police station. Later that year, she was charged with “justifying terrorism” and her bank accounts were frozen.
The charges stemmed from a radio show Prokopyeva hosted on the local affiliate of liberal radio station Ekho Moskvy in late 2018, in which she discussed a suicide bombing the previous month by a 17-year-old inside the FSB security services building. Prokopyeva said on the air that the bomber was “a teenager who grew up under Putin’s rule” and that a “ruthless state” had raised someone who saw violence as the only path. After the show was broadcast, authorities ordered Ekho Moskvy and a local website to remove the transcription of her comments and fined both media outlets.
In October 2019, Prokopyeva wrote an open letter detailing her case and asserting that the charges represented “a fist in the face of every journalist of our country.”
After a months-long postponement because of measures to slow the spread of COVID-19, her trial began in June. The prosecutor asked the court to sentence Prokopyeva to six years in prison and to bar her from journalistic activities for four years.
On July 6, Prokopyeva was convicted of “justifying terrorism” and ordered to pay 500,000 rubles (US$6,980) in fines. The court also ordered the confiscation of Prokopyeva’s mobile phone and laptop computer but ruled that Prokopyeva could continue her journalistic work. Prokopyeva said she would appeal.
In an interview with CPJ in April, the journalist said Russia had not had press freedom for a long time. “People who see this only now were sleeping and did not see that the pressure has been increasing over the last 15 years—slowly, step by step.”
The text of Svetlana Prokopyeva’s acceptance speech is below:
I’ve never thought I’d be worthy of such an award. Where am I and where are world awards? What should be done for an ordinary journalist from a small Russian town to be at the center of international attention? The Russian state did everything to make it happen.
I should thank not only the Committee to Protect Journalists but also the Russian Federation—the huge soulless decision-making machine—from clerks at [the state media regulator] Roksomnadzor to the judges in [a local court in Pskov]. They turned me, an ordinary citizen, into a criminal. But also into a “victim of the regime,” a “fighter for the truth” and a “defender of freedom of speech.” I’ve been called all that after a criminal case was launched against me—the absurd case with fabricated motives and trumped-up charges. In fact, the state apparatus turned my journalism into a crime.
The case was so outrageous that it attracted the attention of the whole world.
In my broadcast, I spoke about a terrorist attack in Arkhangelsk: I said that Russian law enforcement provoke crimes against them, because they bring charges against every citizen demanding rights instead of having a debate.
And their response? Yes, criminal charges!
Freedom of speech, right to an opinion and the right to openly criticize the state—these are simple axioms that lost their meaning for state servants. In today’s Russia, many officials, including prosecutors and judges, do not understand journalists’ mission, or why we need freedom of speech.
In today’s Russia, journalism is often equaled to crime. It sends a clear signal that the country’s democratic development has stalled. We are sliding into totalitarianism—again. Because if there is no freedom of speech, other freedoms are out of reach.
I am grateful for this award because it gives us an opportunity to draw attention to this important issue. In Russia, freedom of speech needs support. Thank you all!