‘I don’t believe it for a second’ Russian investigative journalists on the drug charges against Meduza's Ivan Golunov
On June 6, Meduza correspondent Ivan Golunov was arrested in Moscow. During a search of his clothing, officials found a packet containing a narcotic substance, and another packet was found afterward in his apartment. Golunov has argued that both packets were planted. Meduza’s editorial board believes he is innocent and that the persecution he is facing may be related to his journalistic work. We asked Russia’s leading investigative reporters to comment on Ivan Golunov’s arrest.
BBC Russian Service
This is frightening and bad for all of us. Our work is already difficult. When these kinds of situations happen, it feels like the simplest thing to do would be to switch careers and leave — but, of course, nobody’s actually going to do that.
Vanya Golunov has been a very close friend of mine for many years, from the moment we wrote an article together for RBC. And you couldn’t imagine a person who is further from every forbidden pleasure. He doesn’t even drink — everybody knows that— he even stopped drinking non-alcoholic beer. He talked about drugs with a tone of extreme wariness. On top of that, Vanya is a very professional investigative journalist. In the Russian reality, an investigative journalist takes great care even when they’re just crossing the street. They never jaywalk so that nobody at all could ever find fault with them, and they always pay all of their taxes and their rent. So that there would be no reason for anyone to find fault with them. The idea that an investigative journalist who works on such difficult and dangerous topics could be anywhere near his right mind and sell drugs is one I just cannot accept. I’m saying this on my honor.
I know that he published a very harsh piece about predatory home equity creditors, and I think somebody wasn’t happy about it. Three weeks ago, Vanya said he was taking a walk with a friend, and a stranger followed them around for a long time — one and the same person over a long period of time.
Today, at 3:42 AM, I got a call from an investigator named Ivan Lopatin. He called and asked, “Svetlana, do you know Ivan Golunov?” I said of course I did, he’s a close friend of mine. He said, “I would like to notify you that he has been arrested on suspicion of an attempted sale.” In the background, I could hear Vanya. He said, “Congratulations to everyone. The system is working beautifully. There have been two clumsy attempts to plant drugs on me.” He said it in a very calm voice.
I still have hope that it’s all a bad dream and somebody is going to deal with all of this. They didn’t get a hand swab from Ivan, and that’s the first thing the investigators should have done. They always take them to figure out whether this person even touched the packets involved. The attorney said he was stopped from behind, and not during a sale or a purchase. The attorney said the packet was in his backpack on top of all his other things. If you think about it logically, anyone who wanted to make a bit of money that way wouldn’t have put that packet in the most visible place possible.
I’m shocked, to be honest. I’ve known Vanya since the end of 2015, when I started working at RBC. Even then, Vanya was writing very long and complex pieces. It was a pleasure to know that those kinds of pieces were coming out at the outlet where I worked. I mean, one of the reasons I even took a job there was that one of their journalists was Vanya Golunov.
Everybody knows that Vanya has always been meticulous by nature. People who have taken walks around the city with Ivan have always run into a bit of a problem where Vanya sees yet another construction project on the road, some kind of asphalt or tile replacement, and then he spends the next half hour of his life figuring it all out: what does this company do? Who’s the contractor? Who are the owners? Who are the beneficiaries? How do they make money off the government’s budget?
I am certain that everything that’s going on now with Ivan Golunov is happening because of his work. There’s no other option here. I don’t believe any of these photos of the so-called search they’ve slipped onto Telegram. I don’t know who he’s crossed.
That drug statute is entirely flexible. Our colleagues at every outlet, myself included, have written a million articles on how law enforcement officers planted drugs on somebody to settle a score with them. The system usually doesn’t switch into reverse after that, and they only let people go free in extremely exceptional cases. But it has happened, and it would be best if Vanya became one of the very few it’s happened to.
Vanya and I started talking a lot when he was still working at RBC. I was working on Ukraine, traveling back and forth from the war, and Vanya and Sveta Reiter were investigating the Yanukovich family’s machinations. Given that common ground, we turned to each other for advice often, and it was clear from our very first conversation that Ivan is a highly professional individual who is very scrupulous when it comes to details, no matter how small. Ivan demands a lot from himself and from the information he gathers. That’s something that distinguishes every good journalist, especially investigative ones.
To me, this is absurd, and I don’t believe such a competent person and competent professional could do the things he’s been accused of. At the same time, I have zero faith in law enforcement. The law enforcement system has discredited itself in large part through these kinds of cases — cases like Yury Dmitriev’s and Oyub Titiev’s. Now, we’ve waited long enough that they’ve planted some powder on a journalist in the middle of Moscow. It’s all like the 1990s — unbelievable lawlessness.
Even if the people behind this little trick were hoping to scare or stop this specific journalist, this will still be received much more broadly. This should be received as a threat to the entire journalism community. A threat to the entire community of investigative journalists. And our field is close to extinction anyway. Only a small handful of outlets do investigations in Russia anymore. And a grandiose hit like this is a signal to all of us who do that kind of digging. It’s a signal that they can do the same thing to you or worse. And you won’t be able to do anything about it no matter what your reputation is. After all, Ivan has a brilliant, transparent reputation.
If they’ve allowed themselves to do away with a famous journalist whose reputation is so crystal clear, who works for an very well-known publication, with this kind of impunity, then what can you say about younger journalists, regional journalists, or people who work in smaller newsrooms? We do still have traces of free media here, after all. In that context, this is an extremely strong signal to the entire community that nobody is untouchable. Your reputation, your competence, and your fame can’t make you immune. Our security forces have shown that they can do whatever they want with anyone they want. No matter how blunt the provocation was.
The sooner and louder the professional community reacts to this, the greater the chances that we’ll be able to put a stop to this provocation — and, possibly, tear Ivan out of their paws. Now is the time when we can take action. I hope every outlet that still has some ability to make journalism jumps in and helps out somehow.
I’ve known Vanya for a very long time. He’s a mega-professional journalist. Doubtless one of the best investigative journalists in Russia right now. That’s no hyperbole. I felt total shock when I heard. I can’t make it fit in my head. I really hope they let him go soon and this all turns out to be some kind of misunderstanding. I absolutely don’t believe all these photographs they’ve published.
I can’t say that I knew Vanya well, but naturally, my colleagues and I, we’re all trying to figure this out, we’re asking around. Everything I’ve heard points to the fact that Vanya didn’t just stay away from drugs entirely; he didn’t even drink. What drugs are they talking about? It’s delusional.
Of course, every journalist is feeling a colossal amount of personal empathy toward Vanya right now. We’re all thinking, “Today it’s him, and tomorrow, it’ll get to me.” I think the entire professional community is just in a state of horror. I hope we will all be able to unite. They say there’s a nightmare, in a good way, happening at the St. Petersburg Economic Forum right now — everybody’s following all the newsmakers, trying to ask them questions, bringing their attention to Ivan’s case. I hope that helps.
BBC Russian Service
I’ve known Vanya for many years. I think that right now, Ivan is one of the strongest investigative journalists we have in this country. Of course, many, many people have been unhappy with his articles because they directly affected various corrupt officials. Unfortunately, we’re now forced to recognize that they’ve started adding these kinds of methods to the arsenal they deploy against unwanted journalists.
In fact, this situation is so shocking that I think Ivan’s friends haven’t entirely convinced themselves that all this is really happening and that it’s happening to him. Of course, nobody thought something like this could happen. But we’ve been living in the kind of country for the past 20 years where probably any independent journalist is putting themselves at risk.
I think we have to look at the topics Ivan worked on. We have to look at whose interests might have taken a hit because of his publications and look for the person who ordered this among those people. I think it’s possible that this is an attempt to stop some new investigation Ivan was working on. That’s the most rational thing that comes to mind right now.
This is a very dangerous signal. We see that they’ve caught the man on the street, stuffed who knows what into his bag, not let him contact anybody for more than 12 hours, and then we find out that some kind of criminal case has already been prepared and handed over to the courts. There have already been so many procedural violations in this case that this is, of course, a very dangerous signal. We have to respond to this. They could use the same scheme to put any undesirable journalist away for 10, 15, 20 years — whatever sentence comes to these people’s minds.
I very much want to hope that public outcry will be enough to help Ivan somehow. But we know perfectly well what kind of country we live in and how the justice system works in this country.
This feels like a provocation. As far as I can judge, I’m sure that this is related to his work. Vanya is a prolific investigator. A journalist I look to myself as a role model. He’s just a research machine. A threat to every corrupt official and anyone who’s ever been party to any kind of suspicious deal. Thanks to Vanya, these things all come to light. I’m proud to know him. He’s not just an awesome journalist — he’s a kick-ass human being. An incredible friend — he’s always ready to help. One of the best people out there just generally.
Of course, I’m no human rights activist. But I know people who are in prison under that statute [Article 228.1 on illegal drug dealing]. They can pin that statute on anybody. As Vanya says, judging from what I’m reading in the media, he demanded that they swab his hands and his backpack and something else on top of that because that would have confirmed that he had nothing to do with that packet. They didn’t do it. What conclusion can you draw here? All they have is a highly plantable packet.
It’s scary to live now, not just to work. This can happen to anybody. I’m also very scared for Vanya because this is happening to him right now. This is not a hypothetical risk — it’s a very real risk. When the system catches somebody, it’s very hard to get them out of there. The system catches them in a death grip. I have zero doubt that he had nothing to do with this. But I’m really scared [to think about] how we can possibly get him out of there now. This is just some kind of hell.
OCCRP, Novaya Gazeta
I don’t believe for a second that it’s true, what the police say. Given the situation and the topics Ivan worked on, I think we’re talking about a case where they simply planted the drugs.
I’ve known Ivan for many years already, at least since Novaya Gazeta — 10 years at least. He’s a very scrupulous person, very meticulous. I know a lot of his work, and it all stems from a very formidable foundation of evidence. The thought that someone who publishes investigations on the Moscow government, on very odd contracts, on the ties between Moscow government officials and their relatives and those contracts — that he would take that step… That’s hardly believable. People that insane just don’t exist in nature.
We’re going to try to do everything we can to clear up this situation and find the people who ordered this very quickly. What isn’t clear in this case is why they crossed this line. When journalists do investigative work, they try to be holier than the Pope. As one of my friends says, “They don’t even jaywalk.”
I think you can’t have it both ways on this. The whole situation and the things Vanya has worked on recently — the fact that he noticed he was being followed, the fact that there were threats — all of it points to the fact that things have gone and taken off. The question is only who among our law enforcement agents, among our beautiful government officials, decided to make such an idiotic move. These methods haven’t been in place since the 90s. It seems like they’re not afraid of the publicity or anything anymore. Though we do have precedent — Novaya Gazeta journalist Andrey Sukhotin. They tried to charge him with some totally made-up crime too, some kind of attack (Sukhotin was arrested on robbery charges in 2013 – Meduza). That all fell apart pretty quickly — it was all very clear. But we know from experience that the smaller the officials, the more dangerous and inept they are. It seems like they don’t understand the consequences of their actions and just feel entirely like they’re still in the 1990s.
BBC Russian Service
I know Vanya to be one of the best, if not the best, investigators in the country. I know him as a kind and responsive human being. The topics he worked on were dangerous, of course, but we journalists are used to taking that danger as a given. It’s very easy to shut down a journalist on drug charges, just as easy as it is shut down anybody else in our country.
Translation by Hilah Kohen