Igor Kuznetsov, a freelance correspondent for the independent news outlet RusNews who is based in the western Siberia town of Tomsk, has been detained since September 2021 on charges of inciting mass disturbances in group chats on the messaging app Telegram and inciting hatred. As of late 2022, Kuznetsov remained 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 176,000 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, 2021, the Tomsk regional account of the activist group Chto-Delat! (What Is to be Done!) published a video, which CPJ reviewed, on Telegram in which a masked man announces plans for a wave of single-person protests that day. Kuznetsov can be heard in the video identifying himself as the camera operator and saying that he works for RusNews. A caption under the video states that “the participants” in the protest were attacked and the camera operator was “captured.”
Aynbinder told CPJ that Kuznetsov had offered the video to RusNews, but that the outlet declined to publish it because of a policy against publishing videos of people who hide their identities.
Also on September 5, police in Moscow arrested alleged Chto-Delat! founder Dmitry Chebanov as he attempted to stage a protest in the city, according to media reports.
Police in Tomsk arrested Kuznetsov on September 16 and took him to his home, which they searched, confiscating three phones and a laptop, according to the human-rights news website OVD-Info and Sibir.Realii, the Siberia-focused project run by the U.S. Congress-funded broadcaster Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty (RFE/RL).
Authorities questioned Kuznetsov at the Counter-Extremism Center in Tomsk and charged him with inducing or recruiting people to commit mass disturbances via Telegram, according to RusNews.
If convicted of inciting mass disturbances, Kuznetsov could face a fine of up to 700,000 rubles (US$11,400), up to five years of forced labor, or five to 10 years in prison, under Russia’s criminal code.
In a statement following his arrest, which CPJ reviewed, Kuznetsov said that the charges were 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 that 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, 2021, 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.” The statement did not identify Kuznetsov by name.
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, was quoted as telling reporters that Kuznetsov had been an administrator of the group because all members were treated as administrators, and that he had not written anything in the chat.
Another lawyer who represented the journalist following his arrest, Vyacheslav Khudoleyev, was quoted as saying by RFE/RL’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 was quoted as saying. “Investigators have absolutely no evidence for these charges.”
Kuznetsov’s friend Vadym Tyumentsev was quoted as saying by 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.
On September 29, 2021, RusNews reported that Kuznetsov had been transferred from Tomsk to Pretrial Detention Center No. 5 in Moscow.
In a letter to a friend dated October 13, 2021 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.
On August 15, 2022, OVD-Info reported that authorities had accused the Chto-Delat! Telegram channel of posting calling for rallies "against Putin’s regime” and charged all 11 individuals in the case, including Kuznetsov, with an additional charge of incitement to hatred added in late July 2022. If convicted of this new charge, Kuznetsov faces up to six years in jail, according to the criminal code.
As of late 2022, the journalist remained in Pretrial Detention Center No. 5 in Moscow, according to RusNews journalist Irina Salomatova, who spoke to CPJ via messaging app. Salomatova said that Kuznetsov’s detention was last extended on September 14, but she did not specify for how long. She said that he was getting acquainted with his case and that he did not report any health issues in prison.
In October 2022, CPJ called the Russian Ministry of Interior, but nobody answered the phone. CPJ emailed the press service of the Russian Prosecutor General’s Office, but did not receive any replies.