stories

‘Sit tight and we’ll let you go soon without a problem’ Volgograd journalists recount how cops herded them into police vans, so they couldn’t film a crackdown on protesters

Meduza
Alexey Volkhonsky / V1.ru-Volgograd

On January 28, opposition politician Alexey Navalny organized rallies in dozens of cities across Russia to promote a “voters’ boycott” on March 18, when the country holds its next presidential election. In many places, the demonstrations didn’t have permits from the local authorities, and law enforcement detained a few hundred people in total. In Volgograd, before police moved in on the crowd, officers moved the press corps into buses, rounding up photographers especially, apparently to prevent photos of the crackdown. The journalists were taken to a local police station and released without charges. Meduza spoke to some of these reporters to find out just what happened on January 28.

Ekaterina Gerasimova

journalist for the website Volzhskii.ru

I went to the January 28 demonstration on a routine assignment. There had been incidents involving the police at previous rallies, but they had involved only Navalny's supporters — not journalists. So none of my colleagues was expecting anything like this.

When the rally was actually underway, the police asked everyone from the press to get into a police van. They were polite but insistent and they didn’t take no for an answer.

There were six journalists in the bus, including my husband, who was also on assignment. Ending up together in police custody was a new chapter in our history together. All of us that day had come from different news agencies to report.

The police officers offered no explanations and didn’t say why we were being detained. They drove us around downtown Volgograd for about an hour, and there were already jokes circulating on social media that the cops were joyriding with all the reporters or taking us on a sightseeing excursion.

Eventually, they brought us to the central police station, where they wrote down our passport details and released us. We're now discussing next steps with our colleagues.  The chief editors at several publications (including mine) have sent formal inquiries to the Interior Ministry, requesting an explanation of the reasons for detaining members of the press. It's hard to make any predictions just yet. We’ll wait for their response and then decide with our colleagues what to do next.

Ruslan Gerasimov

photo editor for the website Novosti Volgograda

I was as careful as possible, knowing that the demonstration didn’t have a permit and that there might be trouble or provocations. People started assembling at about 2:00 p.m. Thirty minutes later, the crowd set off down Lenin Avenue, heading for downtown. The police — including riot police — blocked the crowd's path at the exit leading out from a pedestrian tunnel. The demonstrators had only come about 150 meters [about 500 feet]. This is where the police started detaining people.

I was standing behind the riot police, doing my job — filming what was happening. Then, without giving their names, two police officers came up and asked me to board a police bus. I tried showing my press credentials, but they said, “You can show your credentials in the bus.” I invoked Article 144 of the Russian Federation Criminal Code [which prohibits interfering with journalists’ lawful professional activity], but it was no use. Firmly but politely, they forced me inside the bus.

Once inside, I saw my colleagues from other publications. I was very surprised: I hadn't seen them being detained. I immediately called my wife to warn her that I'd been taken, and to ask her to get out of the crowd. I was too late, it turned out — they brought her to the van a couple of minutes later. Immediately, I wrote about our detentions on [the social network] Telegram, asking people to share it as widely as possible.

We drove around downtown, and they didn’t give us a single reason for having detained us. Whenever we asked them a question, they said, “We’re just doing our jobs.” Incidentally, talking to them in private, the officers’ were remarkably sensitive. I probably have to agree with Navalny that the police actually support his political views to a great extent. These are ordinary people — they take off the uniform at the end of the day and go shopping, like anybody.

We never got an apology or an explanation, but it shows that we were processed at the station promptly — with exaggerated respect, even.

I’m of two minds about the whole thing. I'm not afraid to go and work at rallies — it's my job. But such disregard for and indifference toward the rights of journalists is something new. Who came up with the idea of detaining journalists — all the journalists — working at a demonstration?  It makes no sense to detain journalists. If you don't want them to write anything, just make sure nothing happens.

Alexey Volkhonsky / V1.ru-Volgograd

Slava Yashchenko

photographer for Kavkazskii Uzel

I saw the police detaining journalist Yaroslav Malykh and I tried to explain to the officer that Yaroslav was working. “Just take a look at the credentials he’s showing you,” I said. For some reason, they left me alone then. After another 30 minutes, I saw police detaining an activist. I started taking pictures, and then an officer grabbed me by the elbow. He refused to listen when I said I was a journalist, ignoring my credentials, and bringing me to the police van with the activist. There were only two other people detained in the van — everyone else was a police officer. I offered to show the captain my credentials, so they’d leave me alone. But he said, “This has got nothing to do with me.” I tried to get out of the bus, but they wouldn't let me.

They took us to a police van at the upper terrace of the embankment, where they were bringing some of the activists. They made me wait in line to be searched before putting me in the bus. While I was waiting in line, I heard someone call my name. It was the chief editor of New Day, a local news agency, and he asked what I was doing waiting in line with the activists. My colleague talked to the police officer, and he let me go. We never got photos of the most interesting stuff.

This situation is an important moment for the journalists around here. Personally, I'm going to sue, and my newsroom supports me. If my colleagues issue a collective statement, I'll support it. What happened was an insult, and we need to respond. The regional journalists’ union, meanwhile, has taken a bizarre position by not reacting at all. I visit there website every day to see if they’ve appealed to the governor yet or to somebody. But as far as they’re concerned, it’s like nothing even happened.

Alexey Volkhonsky

photographer for V1.ru-Volgograd

I wasn’t worried at first. I figured the police would probably be able to distinguish me from an activist, who go around chanting slogans and carrying banners. And the police officers here all know who the journalists are. But we were the very first to be detained. The whole time, I kept running ahead to photograph the crowd, and then these two uniformed officers came up and said, “What are you doing?” I showed them my press credentials, and they said, “Well, we didn’t notice, but we’ll sort it out later. For now, come with us to the van.” I only managed to photograph the demonstration for about seven minutes, and then it was off to the police van. When we got there, an officer was waiting. In an understanding tone, he said, “Sorry, guys. This is nothing personal. Sit tight and we’ll let you go soon without a problem.”

They brought a few other journalists to the van next, and only afterwards did the police start detaining activists.

My impression is that everything that happened to us was somebody’s dumb idea. An order probably went out telling the police to keep arrest photos out of the papers, and so somebody decided to detain the journalists. On top of that, Vladimir Putin would visit Volgograd on February 2. Maybe they were trying to hide bad news from the president? But we’re not living in the year 2000, when there wasn’t any Internet here.

* * *

On January 29, Volgograd’s Interior Ministry contacted local media outlets, explaining that protest sites are “danger zones.” The document also stated that journalists have the right to photograph demonstrators, but they must present their press credentials immediately upon request. The ministry’s message said nothing about the detention of several reporters a day earlier at Navalny’s “voters’ boycott” rally. Officials did not respond to Meduza’s requests for a comment on this story.

Story by Alexandra Sivtsova, translation by Peter Marshall