29.01.2023

Press in line of fire as Russian authorities tighten post-Navalny crackdown

Fedor Khudokormov was filming the Moscow protest postscript to Tuesday’s jailing of Kremlin critic Alexei Navalny when a riot-police officer turned away from beating a young demonstrator in order to push the reporter away.

Mr Khudokormov, who was wearing a fluorescent yellow press jacket, shouted that he was a journalist and showed his credentials. But the officer leaped forwards, and with one, then two strikes of the truncheon to Khudokormov’s head, sent him falling to the icy ground.

The 19-year-old reporter was eventually transported to the city’s main emergency hospital, where he spent several hours nauseous and vomiting. He intends to press charges against the police, he tells The Independent. But given Russia’s on-demand legal system – obvious from Tuesday’s sentencing of Mr Navalny – he was not confident of success.

“I don’t want to entertain any hope,” he said. “A woman was kicked in the stomach in St Petersburg ten days ago, and still no criminal case has been opened.”

Mr Khudokormov’s tale was one of many in a night of shocking ultraviolence in Moscow, where riot police scuttled around the city centre’s fancy streets in search of panicked, and mostly young, prey. But the attack on a clearly distinguished reporter suggested authorities were increasingly viewing the press as fair targets in their clampdown.

That conclusion is supported by evidence from the courtroom.

On Wednesday, a Moscow court jailed the bothersome editor of Mediazona, a muckraking resource that specialises in reporting on the repressive elements of Russia’s justice system. Sergei Smirnov was handed a 25-day administrative sentence for retweeting a joke that contained the date of a protest in support of Mr Navalny.

The sentence followed a long campaign of harassment of the journalist – including raids at his home and the home of his mother – and of his colleagues.

Almost immediately afterwards, news feeds reported the jailing of another liberal journalist, Nikita Girin, who had been detained at an unsanctioned rally. He was handed a 14-day sentence in a hearing that lasted 10 minutes.

Authorities declared an interest in new targets too. On Wednesday morning, Roman Badanin, the influential editor of Proekt, another investigative outlet, reported that police had turned up at his former address.

It was not clear what the police officer wanted, but it is likely he believed the journalist to still be living at the address. Delivering official warnings is the usual first step before formal court processes begin.

Even with jails filling up in Russia’s main cities, the Kremlin has shown no intention of letting up on an increasingly hardline policy towards its critics.

In comments to journalists on Wednesday morning, spokesperson Dmitry Peskov defended police actions – even in the face of clear evidence of unprovoked attacks.

The “harsh police actions” were justified because the protests were unauthorised, he said.

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