For going on 20 years since Vladimir Putin emerged out of relative obscurity to take the reigns of power in the world’s largest country, Russia’s independent journalists have been frequent targets of Putin and the FSB, the modern incarnation of the Soviet-era KGB.
Intimidation, arrests, and forced exile of journalists is the norm in Russia, which is ranked 149th out of 180 countries for press freedom by Reporters Without Borders. Since Putin took power, the authorities regularly accuse journalists who criticise or investigate the Kremlin of being intelligence operatives for foreign governments or drug-addicted hooligans who live a life of debauchery and who are determined to disrupt the status quo.
The journalists who work out of the hermetically sealed confined of the Kremlin-controlled state media are regularly demonised by their counterparts in the mainstream Russian media nothing by rabble-rousers who are unpatriotic.
The climate of intimidation and political repression that Russian investigative journalist Ivan Golunov regularly worked under was no different. His reports about government officials and powerful oligarchs both in Russia and Ukraine often had him the crosshairs of the secret police.
Golunov had been working for the Latvia-based independent news website Meduza. The website was established by Russian journalists from Lenta.ru, who formed their own outlet abroad after a takeover by a new pro-Kremlin owner.
During his time at Meduza, his reporting included stories about Russia’s loan sharking business, the earnings of the family of Moscow’s deputy mayor, the unusually high cost of public works in the Russian capital, and the alleged censorship of journalists.
While on a trip to central Moscow earlier in June, Golunov was stopped and searched by police officers, who later claimed that they had discovered the drugs in his bag and drug paraphernalia in his home. Reports said he was beaten during his arrest. While in custody, before publicly appearing before a Moscow district judge, Golunov was reportedly beaten during his questioning.
Supporters immediately claimed the journalist was innocent and a victim of fabricated drug charges, which activists say are used against opposition figures and human rights activists by the Russian state. Golunov faced 20 years in prison if convicted of drug manufacturing and narcotics dealing.
A wave of support spread quickly around the globe as governments, human rights groups, and news agencies all called for his release. Surprisingly, journalists from Russia’s state-run media and even some government officials closely connected to the Kremlin cast doubt over the charges brought against Golunov.
In an unprecedented show of solidarity on 10 June, the newspapers Vedomosti, Kommersant, and RBC each published front page headlines: “I am/We are Ivan Golunov,” accompanied by editorials calling for inquiries into the case.
“We do not rule out that Golunov’s detention and subsequent arrest are linked to his professional activities,” they said, adding that the journalist’s arrest amounted to an act of intimidation.
Speaking to reporters that same day, Dmitry Peskov, the spokesman for Putin, said the Kremlin was “carefully monitoring” Golunov’s case which, he admitted, had triggered a “great number of questions”.
Amid a massive outcry and threats of protests, the likes of which have been unseen since Putin came to power, Russia;s interior ministry said a decision had been taken to free Golunov because of a lack of evidence to support the controversial charges
Now free, Golunov insists that he will continue to work as a journalist, but said he would not be investigating his own case.