1. Skip to content
  2. Skip to main menu
  3. Skip to more DW sites
Press FreedomRussian Federation

News editor's arrest reveals Russia's tighter grip on media

Emily Sherwin Moscow
February 18, 2021

Sergei Smirnov spent 15 days in a detention center for retweeting a joke. The editor-in-chief of online platform Mediazona has just been let out, but his arrest shows a tightening grip on critical voices.

Russland Sergei Smirnov Journalist
The imprisonment of Mediazona editor-in-chief Sergei Smirnov highlights Russia's tightened grip on press freedomImage: Tverskoi District Court Press/ITAR-TASS/Imago Images

Sergei Smirnov was about to go for a walk in snowy Moscow with his young son and two colleagues. But the plan came to a halt when he was suddenly arrested — a move that soon put Russia's press freedom under renewed scrutiny. 

Smirnov is the editor-in-chief of Mediazona, which is known for its reporting on protests, arrests, rights abuses and judicial matters in Russia. The news site was founded by members of Pussy Riot — the Russian punk-rock collective known for its staunch criticism of the Kremlin.

"We turned the corner and saw uniformed police in bullet-proof vests running towards us," says Egor Skovoroda, a colleague of Smirnov, as he recalled what happened on January 30, in an interview with DW.

Initially, the police report said Smirnov had taken part in unauthorized protests on 23 January, when thousands took to the streets to call for the release of opposition politician Alexei Navalny. But Smirnov had stayed home that day.

The police, instead, accused Smirnov of issuing a call to participate in unauthorized protests. Smirnov had retweeted a picture of a well-known musician urging people to take to the streets — but only because a user had joked that the musician looked just like Smirnov. The picture also included the date of an upcoming opposition demonstration not cleared by authorities, which police saw as grounds for an arrest.

Skovoroda, an editor and correspondent at Mediazona, says the atmosphere at the news organization has been "combative" since the arrest of their editor-in-chief. "Everyone is angry and can't believe what's happening." 

More than 50 media outlets came out publicly in support for Smirnov, including the online platform Meduza, which called Smirnov's arrest "a new level of pressure on journalists in Russia" in an editorial.

Sticking together

After his release on February 18, Smirnov was more philosophical about what had happened to him. "This shows what kind of country we live in," Smirnov told over 700 users in a discussion on the social media app Clubhouse. "The fact I was arrested is less important than the reaction to it."

Police stand in front of a door of the apartment building where Oleg Navalny, brother of jailed opposition leader Alexei Navalny, lives (AP Photo/Mstyslav Chernov)
Police paid a visit to several journalists as well as searching the homes of activists in a recent crackdown Image: Mstyslav Chernov/AP/picture alliance

Ekho Moskvy was also among the media outlets that came out in solidarity with Smirnov. Aleksei Venediktov, the editor-in-chief of the radio station critical of the Kremlin, told DW that authorities targeting journalists at the editor-in-chief level is new. He says his media outlet considers Smirnov was arrested using "a lie," making his treatment "politically motivated."

"Putting an editor-in-chief in prison for political reasons means you scare the other people working at the media outlet — you try and silence it. This case sets a precedent," says Venediktov says.

"This is a veiled attempt at censorship."

A protester carrying a Russian flag at a demonstration following the sentencing of Alexei Navalny in Moscow (AP Photo/Pavel Golovkin)
Mass protests took place in support of opposition leader Alexei Navalny, including after his sentencingImage: Pavel Golovkin/AP Photo/picture alliance

Crackdown intensifies

But Smirnov was not the only journalist who has faced repercussions when Russia was rocked by mass protests in recent weeks. The peaceful demonstrations, which authorities have insisted were unauthorized, took place following the arrest of opposition politician Alexei Navalny on his return to Russia.

According to the independent monitoring organization OVD Info, over 11,000 people were detained. Around 200 of them were journalists.

Media lawyer Galina Arapova, who heads the Mass Media Defense Center, says that number is unprecedented.

Journalists also faced police searches at their homes ahead of protests. And a video filmed on February 2 at Moscow protests after Navalny's sentencing showed a riot police officer beating a journalist over the head after he complained about being pushed out of the way while working. The journalist was wearing a neon press vest. The head of Russia's official journalism union, Vladimir Solovyov, called the incident "absolutely intolerable."

When asked about the arrests of journalists at the recent protests, Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov called them "sad incidents," but insisted there are only "a handful of them."

After an earlier protest, Peskov defended police behavior, saying it had been "very hard" for officers to "methodically distinguish" between journalists and "aggressive" protesters.

An arrest during protests against the detention of the opposition leader Alexei Navalny in St. Petersburg (Image: © Sergei Mikhailichenko/SOPA Images via ZUMA Wire)
Journalists have started wearing press vests and press badges while covering protests in RussiaImage: Sergei Mikhailichenko/SOPA/ZUMAPRESS/picture alliance

Neon not bright enough?

For several years now, journalists, including the correspondents at DW's Moscow bureau, have taken to wearing bright press vests and badges at protests, in order to make themselves known as members of the media. Despite having official accreditation to work in the country, journalists also regularly carry official letters explaining that they have an official editorial assignment to cover a demonstration.

"For quite a while now, journalists have been preparing for covering protests as if they were preparing to go to a warzone," media laywer Arapova tells DW. She says many of the journalists arrested during recent protests looked like bright "Christmas trees," marked out with vests, cameras and badges.

"With that kind of gear, a journalist stands out in the crowd. And being noticeable would protect you if the authorities respected journalists," says Arapova.

Russia's President Vladimir Putin attends a video conference during the World Economic Forum (Sputnik/Mikhail Klimentyev/Kremlin)
Vladimir Putin and others in the Kremlin regularly paint critical voices as agents of the WestImage: Mikhail Klimentyev/Kremlin/Sputnik/REUTERS

Tightened grip

Protest laws passed last year now require journalists to identify as members of the media. They also ban journalists from taking part in demonstrations while at work.

To political scientist Aleksandr Kynev, the rules are part of a more "long-term trend" of growing pressure on the media — just like the case against Mediazona's Sergei Smirnov.

"This didn't fall from the sky, like a brick. This brick has been falling for a long time," says Kynev, adding that he believes the pressure will worsen ahead of the upcoming Duma elections in September. Kynev argues that the authorities have been "tightening the screws" on society and "information" ever since the mass opposition protests in 2011 and 2012, which followed parliamentary elections.

In recent years, the editors of many media outlets critical of the government have been replaced to bring them more in line with the Kremlin. Internet censorship has also been growing, with several media outlets having been labeled "foreign agents" in Russia.

Last year, Russia also passed a law allowing that individuals, too, can be declared foreign agents, if they "take part in political activities in the interests of a foreign source." The law was criticized for being vague enough to be applied even to bloggers who work on the US platform YouTube. At the end of the year, Russia's Justice MInistry announced the first five individuals to be declared "foreign agents." Three of them were journalists.

Ivan Safronov, a former military affairs journalists, during a court hearing in Moscow ( Sefa Karacan / Anadolu Agency)
Ivan Safronov, a former military affairs journalists, was detained on high treason charges Image: picture-alliance/AA/S. Karacan

A 'minefield'

Russia has also seen prominent cases of journalists being murdered, such as the killing of journalist Anna Politkovskaya in 2006. "The main difference with what is happening now is that instead of violent actions against individual journalists, this action is systemic — and concerns a whole sector," says political analyst Aleksandr Kynev.

Last year alone, there were several unprecedented criminal cases against journalists. In July, Svetlana Prokopyeva, a freelance journalist at Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty was found guilty of "justifying terrorism" for reporting about a man who detonated a bomb inside a government building. She denied the charge, saying she was just doing her job. Ivan Safronov, a former military affairs journalist for Kommersant and Vedomosti newspapers has been in prison for seven months on high treason charges. Such charges allow authorities to keep him behind bars without telling him what his alleged crimes are. 

Media lawyer Galina Arapova says in Russia, the list of things journalists can no longer write about without fear of repercussions is growing. "The number of these censored limits is so huge that journalists can no longer keep all of them in their head. It's like walking through a minefield. You're always afraid to step on a mine that will blow you up — and your editorial team along with you. It's hard to live with that kind of stress," Arapova explains.

"These are tools for pressuring journalists that essentially force them to give up their work and be silent."