You probably never have heard of Ivan Golunov. But he is a well-known investigative journalist in Russia. His investigations have uncovered apparent corruption in the Moscow mayor’s office, in the funeral business and elsewhere.
And when he was detained under fake charges last week, my fellow journalists in Russia starting texting me about the amazing public response.
I am a journalist from Moscow, working at the Star Tribune for two weeks on a journalism fellowship. As I write this, thousands of protesters are marching on Moscow streets in support of Ivan Golunov and the freedom of speech. The city government didn’t give their permission for this march. More than 400 people have already been detained. The police have used force. I can’t keep silent. I need you to know about this because I believe information is our most potent weapon in this fight for freedom of speech.
The more people who know about the struggle, the greater our chances of winning.
This is the first event I can remember that has joined together so many Russians with different values. Media there — not only independent media — gave Golunov’s arrest nonstop coverage online. On June 10, three of the largest Russian business newspapers — Kommersant, RBC and Vedomosti — carried almost identical front pages with the words: “I am/We are Ivan Golunov.” They also issued a joint statement demanding transparency and accountability for narcotics police officers who arrested Golunov and framed him with drug charges.
It’s the first time anyone can recall when print media in Russia carried the same front pages.
Reading about this and about all the protests outside the courthouse, I wished I had been there. All day, updates from friends arrive saying the country has rallied around Golunov in a far bigger way than anyone expected. His supporters are sure, and so am I, that the case against him is fabricated. Golunov was detained June 6 on his way to meeting with a source. Police say they found drugs in his backpack and later in his apartment. Golunov apparently was beaten in custody. The police were confused about their evidence, first publishing photos of drugs they said were taken from Golunov’s apartment, then later saying they had not been discovered there.
It’s also unimaginable that an investigative journalist who knows well the ways of police in Russia would go to a sensitive meeting with drugs in his backpack.
Golunov has been working on a new investigation about corruption in the funeral business. It involved two high-ranking officials from Russian Federal Security Service in Moscow — Aleksey Dorofeev and Marat Medoev. During the court session on June 8, Golunov said he’d been threatened some days before.
Golunov’s case destroys our sense of security. For even the most positive-minded journalists in Russia his case means that anyone whose writing becomes unpleasant for the police or for the government could be detained with drugs planted in his backpack. It’s not a new method for the police.
This is hardly the first time a Russian journalist has come under pressure because of his work. Since 1992, 58 journalists have been killed. But this is the first time the pressure has become so visible, because of the methods used.
People protested for hours outside Moscow police headquarters. On June 8, hundreds spent all day near the court building. They were shouting: “Disgrace” or “Plant a conscience on yourself.” Late in the evening they learned that Golunov would be placed under house arrest. It was much better than jail, and probably would not have happened without that level of public pressure.
On June 11, the case was dropped for a lack of evidence, but people are not going to stop protesting. The people who arrested Golunov are free. For the last week, unlike him, they have had a normal life. His mental and physical health have been damaged, along with independent investigative journalism in Russia.
Sasha Koksharova is a freelance journalist from St. Petersburg, Russia, where she writes for the website Takie Dela (So It Goes), which explores solutions to social problems. She is in Minnesota reporting for the Star Tribune for two weeks through a fellowship with the International Center for Journalists.