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Russia’s Police Tried and Failed to Silence This Journalist. Now He’s Speaking Up
16 January, 2020
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Ivan Golunov, December 2019 Photo: Viktoria Odissonova / Novaya Gazeta

Investigative journalists rarely become household names in Russia. But when the Russian police tried to silence Ivan Golunov by planting drugs on him last June, it backfired like never before. 

“The situation the police created aroused public interest in pressure on freedom of speech in Russia,” says the investigative journalist, Ivan Golunov, in a recent interview with Hromadske’s partner outlet, Novaya Gazeta.

The well-documented case made him a high-profile figure in the world of Russian journalism. Since his release, he’s been doing a lot of traveling and giving guest lectures about press freedom in Russia.

“Now [people] ask me: ‘come here and tells us about freedom of speech in Russia, how journalists work in authoritarian countries,’ I’m probably a kind of ambassador,” he says. 

On January 14, 2020, Golunov announced that the police officers involved in his case had been charged with abuse of power and that he had been named a victim. 

READ MORE: Dangerous Work in Russian Media: High-Profile Murders of Journalists

In the meantime, Golunov is still working as a correspondent for the Riga-based online news outlet Meduza. But he says the newfound attention he’s receiving makes it difficult to do his work. Ivan Golunov talks to Hromadske’s partner Novaya Gazeta about the progress being made on his case and how his life has changed since his release.

Backstory

When police detained Ivan Golunov in Moscow on June 6, 2019, he was taken to the police department and beaten. Law enforcement then searched his apartment, where they allegedly “discovered” a particularly large quantity of drugs. Suddenly, he was facing up to 18 years in prison.

READ MORE: Meduza Correspondent Arrested in Moscow

Meanwhile, his colleagues and friends were convinced that law enforcement had planted the drugs to frame him and that Golunov was being targeted for investigating corruption. As the scandal gained momentum, ordinary citizens joined the movement and the problem of police planting drugs in order to fabricate criminal cases became subject to widespread discussion. 

The fabricated case unintentionally sparked an unprecedented level of solidarity – not only among Russian journalists but also among ordinary citizens rallying together against the lawlessness of the police. Protestors gathered outside the headquarters of the Moscow City Police for round-the-clock demonstrations calling for his release. 

On June 10, 2019, Russia’s leading newspapers ran the same front page: I AM/WE ARE Ivan Golunov.

Under unprecedented public pressure, the case was thrown out and Ivan Golunov became Russia’s journalist of the year. On June 11, 2019, Russia’s Minister of Internal Affairs Vladimir Kolokoltsev announced that the Golunov case was dismissed “due to a lack of evidence.” The operatives that detained him were dismissed, along with several high-ranking police officers. A criminal case was opened against five police officers on December 18, 2019.

In June 2019, Golunov said that the investigation was “developing quite rapidly,” but then it ground to a halt. His last meeting with the investigator took place at the end of August of last year, and he hasn’t had any contact with the investigation since.

“Recently they haven’t even picked up the phone,” he says.

During his last meeting with the investigator, the authorities seemed to imply that they had identified the paymaster who framed Golunov. According to Golunov, “The investigation and the operatives spoke very confidently” about the so-called “client” – but the authorities have yet to reveal any names.

Ivan Golunov, December 2019. Photo: Viktoria Odissonova / Novaya Gazeta

After Golunov filed a complaint about inaction in his case, the investigators reassured the court that they were actively pursuing a criminal case. At a hearing on December 2, 2019, the judge told him that his complaint was unfounded because the investigation is ongoing.

“During the trial, it emerged that the investigation had ‘no knowledge’ of the facts about the use of violence against me and the falsification of evidence by police officers – which I spoke about during questioning and in the media,” Golunov reveals. “Therefore, my report on the crimes wasn’t registered with the police at all. This seemed very strange to me.”

EDITOR’S NOTE: The Russian Investigative Committee later initiated a criminal case against the five law enforcement officials allegedly responsible for the violations committed while Golunov was in detention. This was announced during Russian President Vladimir Putin’s annual press conference, which took place after Golunov’s interview with Novaya Gazeta.

Ivan Golunov, December 2019. Photo: Viktoria Odissonova / Novaya Gazeta

What’s more, in the six months since Golunov’s arrest, investigators have yet to visit the scene of the crime: his apartment. 

“The case was transferred to the Investigative Committee and they all said ‘We’re coming right now, we’ll conduct an investigation, so don’t touch anything there.’ I tried not to touch anything. They never came,” Golunov recalls. “My feeling that the investigation isn’t actively going anywhere is partly based on this.” 

When asked about how things have changed since his release, Golunov says, “my life is not the same as before.” Sadly, he finds it particularly difficult to do his journalistic work.

“My life has changed significantly. That is, I cannot sit, concentrate and work on some theme for an hour. Because something will happen during this hour,” he explains. “Someone will need an interview from me, someone will need me to speak out on something, and I will also receive a few letters...Stupidly, I cannot do what I want to do – for example, my work.” 

Ivan Golunov, December 2019. Photo: Viktoria Odissonova / Novaya Gazeta

Golunov says that he has received about 7,000 messages in the last six months. And many of them were requests for help. However, this hasn’t led him to undertake many new investigations, since he finds many of the messages “impossible to read.” 

READ MORE: Op-Ed: How Corruption Kills

He also prefers to keep working in the area where he’s had the most success – investigating corruption. In his words: 

I am a journalist. I conduct investigations concerning corruption. It seems to me that the situation I fell into has been an assessment of the quality of my work; if the protagonists of my investigations tried to resolve the ‘problem’ in this way.” 

Although there has been pressure on Golunov to investigate the phenomenon of law enforcement planting narcotics and fabricating drug charges, he has no desire to pursue this line of reporting. 

I will not justify people’s trust by changing my specialization or changing my profession and becoming a human rights defender. This is not very close to me internally,” Golunov tells Novaya Gazeta. “And, in fact, I don’t think that I could do this better than what I am doing now.” 

/Translated and abridged by Eilish Hart, based on materials by correspondent Artem Raspopov of Novaya Gazeta. Courtesy of the Russian Language News Exchange.

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