On September 16, 2021, police in Tomsk, in western Siberia, arrested Igor Kuznetsov, a freelance correspondent for the independent news outlet RusNews, and charged him with inciting mass disturbances in group chats on the messaging app Telegram. As of late 2021, he remains in pretrial detention.
Kuznetsov began working for RusNews as a part-time correspondent in January 2021, the outlet’s editor Sergei Aynbinder told CPJ in a phone interview. RusNews specializes in video coverage of protests, and operates primarily on YouTube, where it has about 170,000 subscribers.
Kuznetsov mainly filmed protests in support of Russian opposition leader Alexei Navalny, Aynbinder told CPJ. In 2020 and 2021, authorities also arrested several other RusNews journalists while they covered demonstrations, according to Aynbinder and previous CPJ reporting.
On September 5, the Tomsk regional account of the activist group Chto-Delat! (What is to be done!) published a video on Telegram in which a masked man announces plans for a wave of single-person protests that day. Kuznetsov can be heard in that video identifying himself as the camera operator, and saying that he works for RusNews.
Aynbinder told CPJ that Kuznetsov had offered the video to RusNews, but said the outlet declined to publish it because of a policy against publishing videos of people who hide their identities.
A caption under the video states that “the participants” in the protest were attacked and the camera operator was “captured.”
Authorities questioned Kuznetsov at the Counter-Extremism Center in Tomsk and charged him with inducing or recruiting people to commit mass disturbances via Telegram, news reports said. The Kirovsky District Court in Tomsk ordered him to be detained until November 14, according to those reports.
In a statement following his arrest, Kuznetsov said that the charges related to his alleged connections to the Chto-Delat! group. He said that he was a member and administrator of chat groups affiliated with Chto-Delat!, but he participated in those groups “exclusively as a journalist as part of an editorial assignment from RusNews, with the aim of obtaining exclusive information to cover protest events.” He denied coordinating any protests.
Aynbinder told CPJ that Kuznetsov had a broad mandate from RusNews to cover any events of interest in his region.
The Investigative Committee of Russia, the country’s main federal investigating authority, released a statement on September 16 accusing Chebanov and at least 10 other unnamed individuals across Russia of running a network of chat groups where they conducted “agitational work aimed at organizing mass unrest” during the country’s September 17-19 elections and published videos containing “incitements to violent actions.”
Authorities have not issued any public statements identifying Kuznetsov by name, the journalist’s friend Maksim Larin told CPJ by messaging app on November 19.
An analysis of the chat groups’ content by independent human rights news website OVD-Info concluded that participants aimed to organize non-violent acts of civil disobedience. Experts who spoke to business daily Kommersant alleged that the channel may have been created or infiltrated by Russian security services to entrap activists.
Yulia Kopeikina, a lawyer who initially represented Kuznetsov following his arrest, told reporters that Kuznetsov had been an administrator of the group because all members were treated as administrators, and he had not written anything in the chat.
Another lawyer who represented the journalist following his arrest, Vyacheslav Khudoleyev, told U.S. Congress-funded Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty’s local website Sibir.realii that Kuznetsov “did not induce anyone to do anything. You could even disregard the channel’s content in his case – he did not create content, but only moderated. Even when making some posts, he was engaged in covering the situation, not shaping it.”
“By this logic, charges could be brought against any journalist covering any protest objectionable to the authorities,” Khudoleyev said. “Investigators have absolutely no evidence for these charges.”
If convicted of inciting mass disturbances, Kuznetsov could face a fine of up to 700,000 rubles (US$9,650), up to five years of forced labor, or five to ten years in prison under Russia’s criminal code.
On September 29, RusNews reported that Kuznetsov had been transferred from Tomsk to Pretrial Detention Center No. 5 in Moscow and placed in a two-week COVID isolation, preventing his lawyer from seeing him.
On November 9, RusNews cited Kuznetsov’s new lawyer Sergei Badamshin as saying that the journalist’s detention had been extended until February 14, 2022.
Badamshin told CPJ by phone in late November 2021 that investigators had so far only accused Kuznetsov of publishing the September 5 video, but that investigations into the Telegram chats were continuing and accusations of further participation could be made.
Kuznetsov’s friend Vadym Tyumentsev told Sibir.realii that he believed the charges against the journalist could be linked to Kuznetsov’s coverage of the Navalny protests or to his activism in favor of Siberian regionalism.
On his Facebook and YouTube accounts, and in a series of single-person protests, Kuznetsov has campaigned in support of issues including independence for Siberia and popular protests in Belarus and the eastern Russian region of Khabarovsk, according to reports and CPJ’s review of these accounts.
In a letter to a friend dated October 13 and marked “for publication,” which was shared with CPJ, Kuznetsov wrote that conditions in the Moscow detention center were significantly better than those in Tomsk. He said he had met with his Moscow lawyers, and that investigators pressured one of his lawyers to sign a non-disclosure agreement but that the lawyer refused.
Badamshin said that lawyers had visited Kuznetsov several times since his transfer to Moscow. The journalist remains in Pretrial Detention Center No. 5; his mood is positive and no health ailments have been reported, he said.
CPJ emailed the Russian Investigative Committee and Interior Ministry for comment, but did not receive any replies.