Unprecedented solidarity helped Russia's journalists to a rare victory over the state when freelancer Ivan Golunov was released earlier this year.
The 36-year-old, known for his work probing corruption, says he was framed after law enforcement said they found drugs on him.
His case sparked a public outcry and three Russian newspapers published identical front-page headlines to protest his detention.
He was released a week after his arrest.
But such a show of solidarity is not afforded to all journalists in Russia, who face pressure and fabricated cases, too.
As the clamour for Golunov's release was mounting in Moscow, thousands of kilometres south-east of the capital, police detained Abdulmumin Gadzhiev in Dagestan — a majority Muslim region known for insurgency against Russian authorities — on charges of terrorism.
Gadzhiev, who works for Chernovik, Dagestan’s prominent opposition newspaper, could face a lengthy sentence if convicted. But his colleagues and family members believe this case, like Golunov’s, was fabricated.
As Russian legislation forbids unauthorised mass protests, they have been carrying out solitary pickets, which see an individual stand at the roadside with placards.
According to Chernovik’s deputy editor-in-chief Magomed Magomedov, Gadzhiev is unlikely to become the next Golunov.
“For the federal media, the Caucasus is terra incognita. You do your thing, and we'll check out the results,” he told Euronews.
“Thankfully, they did support us by telling us about this situation.
"But in Gadzhiev’s case [as opposed to Golunov’s] there’s fear because he’s accused of terrorism. What if there is really something in there, they think. People are afraid to even talk about it, let alone stand up for him.”
'What happens in North Caucasus, stays in North Caucasus'
Chernovik was founded in 2003 by journalist Khadzhimurat Kamalov, who was mortally wounded on the threshold of the newsroom building in 2010.
Magomedov said independent journalism in Dagestan is close to human rights activism, which makes reporters an easy target. According to the Committee to Protect Journalists, 58 journalists were killed in Russia since 1992.
“We tell stories of people who face problems in courts when interacting with authorities,” said Magomedov. “We write anti-corruption articles about the activities of some politicians, representatives of authorities and civil organisations.”
He thinks Gadzhiev’s persecution is “an attempt to influence the newspaper’s editorial policy and, in the best-case scenario, to close the paper altogether”.
Magomedov said police became interested in Gadzhiev after the paper published an investigation into the murder of two teenagers — the Gasanguseynov brothers — during the authorities’ anti-terrorist operation in 2016.
Gadzhiev, being a religion correspondent, was an easy target for the police, Magomedov said.
“After this [publication], we had unofficial contacts with representatives of Dagestan’s FSB (Federal Security Services),” said Magomedov. “During the conversation, they hinted that we close the newspaper. And now they are hinting that Gadzhiev could be released if we changed our editorial policy.”
According to Magomedov, every journalist working in Russia has seen interference in his or her work, including attempts to influence. This could be in the form of pressure from different state institutions or limited access to information. While violations against federal journalists are widely discussed in the press, the media doesn’t say much about the situation in the regions. “What happens in North Caucasus, stays in North Caucasus,” said Magomedov.
“Federal journalists hardly write about the problems of regional journalists, they don’t take to the streets with single-person pickets for them,” agreed Galina Arapova, director of the Center for Media Rights Protection.
“The number of not guilty verdicts in Russia is less than half a percent."
Freedom of the press in peril
In 2019, Russia ranked 149 in the freedom of press index released by Reporters Without Borders. The NGO says six journalists in the country are now behind bars because of their professional activities.
According to Arapova, criminal cases against journalists are rare, but “very alarming”. “Statistically, there are not that many criminal cases against journalists, but they are all very alarming. And there are more of them now than before,” said the lawyer.
In mid-June, a court in Saint Petersburg released from custody, Igor Rudnikov, editor-in-chief of the Kaliningrad newspaper, Novye Krylya. Accused of extortion, he spent one-and-a-half years in prison, reporting torture, before the authorities softened the allegations against him.
“Rudnikov's case was moulded from scratch, built-up and fabricated by the Investigative Committee and the FSB,” said Arapova. “We didn’t expect victory at all. This is an extremely rare case, an exception to the general rule.”
Human rights activists say that charges against journalists in Russia are, in most cases, fabricated. And even if the accusations are absurd, it is very difficult to prove the defendant's innocence.
“When a person falls into the millstone of the judicial system on a criminal charge in Russia, we know the statistics: there are fewer than half-a-percent of non-guilty verdicts,” she said.
Administrative charges are the real threat to freedom of the press
Since 2012, Russian authorities have introduced many restrictions regulating journalists' workflow. There are now laws punishing “contempt for the authorities”and “fake news”, and in addition to these there is the so-called “Yarovaya law” - a controversial piece of anti-terror legislation requiring Russian telecom companies to store users’ communications. Due to this law, media watchdog Roskomnadzor keeps a register of banned websites.
At the moment, there are about 200 thousand resources listed as “banned”. According to the Roskomsvoboda (Roskomfreedom) non-profit organisation, more than 10 million websites were illegally blocked since the introduction of the register.
“Administrative cases are growing exponentially,” said Arapova. “Cases with fines, administrative arrests, websites’ blocking ... There are so many of them that we are simply choking on work.”
The lawyer notes that it is administrative and not criminal cases, that represent the real danger for journalists. “A criminal case is very dangerous, bad and so on. But journalists every day have a huge number of claims from Roskomnadzor, police and other departments. This affects their work much more, it makes them self-censor,” she added.
Lawyers say that in less than 10 years, Roskomnadzor turned from an innocent authority issuing media licenses, into a powerful censorship and control apparatus. While federal and major regional media can afford to defend themselves with the help of full-time lawyers or expensive hired professionals, the regional media are forced to turn to human rights' defenders or close down because of excessive number fines and legal proceedings.
“Of course, all of this is the desire to exercise maximum control over what is written on the internet,” said Arapova.
“But maybe the situation with Golunov will teach Russian journalists that combining efforts and manifesting solidarity is good, useful, and can protect not only a colleague who has fallen into this situation, but also them in the future,” she added.