- Alice Binnington
Another Day, Another Journalist Behind Bars in Russia
Ivan Golunov sits in prison in Moscow, awaiting trial
Ivan Golunov, a 36-year-old investigative journalist, was arrested in Moscow last week on his way to meet a source for the article he was working on. The police found drugs (that Golunov’s lawyer insisted were planted) in his backpack and later in his apartment - although they eventually retracted the photos they had taken of the “drug lab” they found there, stating that they were not (as they had previously affirmed) taken in the journalist’s home, but rather in a corresponding investigation.
Golunov was arrested for trying to sell drugs illegally, allegedly beaten (we cannot know for sure since the police refused to let medical officials release statements about his condition) and, so says his lawyer, denied food or sleep for the next 24 hours.
The reason this particular arrest is more significant than others is because of the reaction that it prompted in the Russian public: protesters surrounded the courthouse, attempting to deny entry to the police, around 12 people (mainly journalists) were arrested and later released connected to these protests in Moscow and Saint Petersburg, and crucially, three important Russian newspapers - Vedemosti, RBC and Kommersant - printed a headline saying “I/We are Ivan Golunov” a week later in support of the reporter. It seems as if the people finally had enough - a remarkable wave of unity swept across the Russian public and its institutions in support of this man - even propagandist figures like Dmitry Kiselyov, a prominent figure on Kremlin-sponsored television, admitted that the police who arrested Golunov “were not blameless”. As a result, a possible 12 or 13-year sentence in prison was transformed into house arrest - a considerable step forward when you consider the history of freedom of the press in Russia.
The front pages of three prominent newspapers in Russia expressing their solidarity with Golunov
Despite the growing support for Golunov’s cause, many are still confused as to why the free-lancer was arrested in the first place - he isn’t exactly a household name, and the journals he writes for are not that well known. The most prominent one, Meduza, isn’t even in Russia. In the court session this week, Golunov revealed what he thought was the cause of his detainment and the ensuing physical abuse: “It’s because of the business with the funerals.”
In August of last year, the Latvian newspaper Meduza published a lengthy investigation that Golunov had carried out boldly entitled “Grave, Cemetary, Hundreds of Billions of Rubels (the Russian currency). How officials, security services and criminals divvy up the funeral market - and what Tesak has to do with it.” Tesak is a nationalist and propagandist public figure in Russia, a video-blogger no less, and he is only one of the many that Golunov condemns in this striking article. He explains how after the Soviet Union collapsed, the monopolies on the funeral market were removed and a vacuum formed - a vacuum to be filled with the above-mentioned “officials, security services and criminals”. The Russian funeral market, he writes, is officially only worth 60 billion rubels (approx.80 million euros), but unofficially, its worth is estimated to reach up to 250 billion rubels (approx.3 billion euros). He goes on to lay out where the excess money comes from - shoot outs in a cemetery in Moscow, corpses thrown over the fence in Ekaterinburg (a city in the centre of Russia), unsanctioned mass burials in Toliatti (a city close to the Kazakh border) and the suicide of a cemetery owner in Omsk (a southern Siberian city). Overtly naming culprits, like the Moscow mayor Sergey Sobianin and many others, Golunov exposes a deep network of fraud and illegal activity, exploring how the control over funeral services is slipping gradually out of the hands of the mourners and into the hands of criminals and corrupt officials.
Needless to say, the article made the reporter some enemies in high places. It is here that the trouble began - Meduza, the newspaper Golunov writes for, confirmed that since the article’s publishing, the journalist has received many death threats and the newspaper was concerned about his security. He had worked to uncover corruption in the Russian government before - his article on how a vice mayor’s family was making billions off of apartment sales, for instance - but this article crossed a line in the eyes of the officials he named.
So it is no surprise that on June 6th of this year, Golunov, who had been walking, ironically, along “Floral Avenue” in Moscow on his way to meet a source for his latest article, was arrested for a crime he didn’t commit. It isn’t any less surprising that he was denied food or sleep for the 24 hours following his arrest, that he was physically abused during that time (a protester later released a video of Golunov showing scarring and bruises on his back) and that his lawyer, Dmitry Julay, arrived only 12 hours after the arrest when a sympathetic detective let a friend of the journalist’s know that he was in trouble. Finally, it is almost to be expected that a corrupt official(s) saw fit to plant drugs on Golunov’s person, to encourage physical abuse on behalf of the police and to attempt to ruin this man’s career by sentencing him to over a decade in prison. After all, Russia ranks 83rd out of 100 for the safety of journalists (100 being the most unsafe) in the world.
The public’s reaction to the arrest, though, is unusual - a reaction that not only draws a clear line between the Russian people and the Russian government but also encourages all journalists out there (even the humble contributors of Nations Voice) to have hope. Hope that things are changing.
Protesters in Moscow are questioned by police