Press freedom has been put on trial in the case of a journalist who has escaped a jail term after a massive show of solidarity from journalists and campaigners.
Freelance reporter Svetlana Prokopyeva, who works for the Prague-based Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty (RFE/RL) network, has been found guilty of justifying terrorism.
The charge was brought after a radio news item in 2018 when Prokopyeva was reporting on the case of a seventeen-year-old who had killed himself in a suicide bomb attack on the Federal Security Service (FSB) secret service local office in Archangel. In her radio report on the local branch of the Echo Moscow radio network in Pskov, western Russia, she wondered aloud: “What repressive atmosphere could make such a young man feel so desperate?”
“Justifying terrorism” is a serious crime that carries a penalty of up to six and a half years in jail. The authorities raided the journalist’s apartment, seizing some of her belongings, blocked her passport and froze her bank account.
When the radio station and the local news website Pskovskaya Lenta Novostei published online a written version of her commentary they were fined 150,000 roubles and 200,000 roubles respectively (approximately 1,86031euros and 2,48041 euros). But she would not be silenced: eleven national news media outlets published an open letter in which she justified in detail the comments she had made and the importance of this case for freedom of speech. Meduza, a critical news website published by exiled Russian journalists based in Latvia, re-published the letter in English as well as in Russian https://meduza.io/en/feature/2019/10/01/up-to-seven-years-in-prison-for-a-two-page-column
The case has outraged international media freedom campaigners. Managing Director of the European Centre for Press and Media Freedom Lutz Kinkel, a former radio journalist and editor of Stern magazine commented:
“Reporting about terrorism and its causes is an entirely legitimate activity. Journalism is not a crime, and this prosecution should never have been brought”.
Inside Russia, Prokopyeva’s case prompted a wave of solidarity from independent and opposition news outlets and non-governmental organisations (NGOs). The online news portal Holod https://holod.media/delo-prokopyevoy?fbclid=IwAR3Txvctp0lnO4uhaUS7KY_P9BwrS9nyrHN7HP4-4zWbmUFVOrksGwniA2A
published messages, photographs and videos from 30 journalists saying that the case was an attack on press freedom and that Prokopyeva was just doing her job.
When she appeared in court on 6 July 2020, over 200 supporters waited outside the court building. Inside, international observers from the Clooney Foundation for Justice’s Trial Watch programme took notes, leading to a strongly worded statement.
The CFJ was created by human rights lawyer Amal Clooney with her husband George (a Hollywood actor), in order to train trial observers and observe important cases where human rights are at stake.
In her defence, Svetlana Prokopyeva urged the prosecutor to consider the most basic principles that society is built upon:
“I mean freedom of speech, the status of a journalist, and the mission of the press. I did my work. I did not do anything that was beyond the framework of my professional duty. And that is not a crime”.
The court sentenced her to a fine of 500,000 roubles (6,201 euros) and she left the courtroom to the cheers of waiting well-wishers, observing that it was thanks to them that she was freely walking out and not being driven in a convoy to jail.
Prokopyeva plans to appeal against the verdict, with the backing of the Clooney Foundation, whose spokesperson warns:
“While the Clooney Foundation for Justice welcomes that Ms Prokopyeva was not sentenced to imprisonment, CFJ calls for her conviction to be quashed or for the appeal court to reverse her conviction and order her acquittal“.
This is clearly not the end of the story.
Transparency note: Leading human rights lawyer Galina Arapova of the Mass Media Defence Centre (MMDC) heads the legal team representing Svetlana Prokopyeva. Ms Arapova is a member of the Executive Board of the European Centre for Press and Media Freedom (ECPMF). https://www.ecpmf.eu/about/governance/boards/