Journalist Mikhail Afanasyev, editor-in-chief of online magazine Novy Fokus, is serving a prison sentence of five years and six months after being convicted by a Russian court of spreading “fake” information about the Russian army. Russian authorities detained him in April 2022.
On April 13, 2022, police searched Afanasyev’s home in Abakan, the capital of Siberia’s Khakassiya republic, seized his technical equipment, and took him to the Abakan investigative department, according to a Telegram post by the Mass Media Defense Center (MMDC), a local group that provides journalists and media outlets with legal aid, and news reports.
Afanasyev was charged under Article 207.3.2.a of Russia’s criminal code for spreading false information about the Russian army “using his official position,” according to a separate Telegram post by the MMDC, which has provided a lawyer to defend Afanasyev.
On September 7, 2023, a Russian court convicted Afanasyev of allegedly using his position to spread false information about the Russian army and sentenced him to five and a half years in prison. The court also banned Afanasyev from working as a journalist, editor, or publisher for two and a half years after he completes the prison sentence.
Afanasyev’s charges are related to a news article, which CPJ reviewed, that he wrote for Novy Fokus in early April 2022 about 11 members of special riot police from Khakassiya who refused to fight in Russia’s war in Ukraine, according to the MMDC and independent news outlet SOTA, which published a screenshot of the material. Authorities accused the journalist of publishing "misleading information" in the article about the number of missing and wounded employees of the Khakass department of Russia’s National Guard, according to media reports.
On March 4, 2022, 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, in the wake of Russia’s full-scale invasion of Ukraine in February. Afanasyev was the first journalist to be convicted for “using his official position” to spread fake news about the Russian army under the March 2022 amendments, according to Radio Svoboda, the Russian service of U.S. Congress-funded Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty.
Afanasyev was previously criminally charged in 2009 with "spreading false information on the internet,” as media reported at the time, over articles about the Sayano-Shushenskaya disaster, when a broken turbine at the Sayano–Shushenskaya hydroelectric plant cost 75 lives. Authorities later closed that case, according to media reports.
Afanasyev is held in Pretrial Detention Center No. 1 in Abakan pending his appeal, according to the banned Russian human rights organization Memorial and Galina Arapova, director of the MMDC, who spoke to CPJ via messaging app in October 2023.
Arapova told CPJ that Afanasyev was “hanging in there,” was fine “physically,” and that he felt “very supported” by the letters of support he had been receiving in detention.
On September 28, 2023, a Russian court granted a request by Russia’s state media regulator Roskomnadzor to close Novy Fokus due to “numerous violations,” according to media reports. In 2022, the same court had labeled several reports published on the Novy Fokus website from 2018-2019 as “extremist.”
In October 2023, CPJ emailed the press service of the Russian Prosecutor General’s Office for comment but did not receive any replies.