Reporters Without Borders strongly condemns the arrests and beatings of at least 15 journalists during demonstrations yesterday and today in Moscow in protest against Vladimir Putin’s installation as president for a third term.
“Putin’s new presidential mandate has got off to an inauspicious start for the media,” Reporters Without Borders said. “We are shocked by the level of police brutality against journalists. No distinction was made between demonstrators and those who came to cover the demonstration, carrying press cards. This is unacceptable. We call on the authorities to stop deliberately targeting journalists.”
The press freedom organization added: “It is equally unacceptable that journalists were attacked by demonstrators. Respect for the media is essential for the development of a democratic society.”
The opposition staged what it billed as a “March of Millions” yesterday to challenge Putin’s legitimacy and protested in the city centre again today as he was sworn in for a third term as president after Dimitri Medvedev’s interregnum. The police made many arrests, as they did during the post-election protests in December and March.
According to the information obtained by Reporters Without Borders, at least three journalists were beaten during yesterday’s demonstration. Radio Echo of Moscow reporter Tikhon Dzyadko and Newsweek correspondent Anna Nemtsova were struck by police during attempts to disperse demonstrators. Nemtsova received several baton blows which almost broke her equipment.
Two NTV journalists were violently manhandled by aggressive protesters while covering the protest in central Moscow’s Bolotnaya Square and their equipment was broken.
At least five journalists were taken to police stations yesterday. Local sources said they included two Kommersant and Pravo.ru reporters whose names were not immediately available. They also included Aleksandr Savelev of Lenta.ru, Aleksandr Artemev of Gazeta.ru and Sergei Minenko of Moskovskye Novosti. Artemev and Minenko were arrested along with more than 50 protesters near the Novokuznetskaya metro station and were held for several hours.
At least seven journalists – Maria Semendyayeva, Aleksandr Orlov and Aleksandr Chernikh of Kommersant, Leonid Ragozin of the BBC, Ilya Barabanov of the New Times, Olesya Gerasimenko of Kommersant Vlast and Kevin Olin of the Moscow Times – suffered the same fate today.
In all, no less than 13 journalists were detained while covering the various demonstrations.
As the demonstrations were getting under way yesterday morning, the websites of several leading independent and opposition media were the targets of Distributed Denial of Service attacks that made them inaccessible for several hours. The victims included the newspaper Kommersant, radio Echo of Moscow, Bolshoy Gorod, Slon.ru and the online TV station Dozhd.
Harassment of the media and the dangers involved in reporting pose major challenges to the possibilities of progress for freedom of information in Russia. Its “new” president, classified as a “predator of press freedom” by Reporters Without Borders, will have to show he is ready to abandon the authoritarian and repressive methods that have characterized him in the past. If he wants to prove he has changed, he must make protecting journalists a priority.