Russia intensifies crackdown on journalists, dissenting voices on Ukraine

Geneva — United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights Volker Türk on Tuesday condemned Russia’s brutal crackdown on journalists, which he says has been increasing since Russia invaded Ukraine in February 2022. 

“The continuous attacks on free speech and the criminalization of independent journalism in Russia are very troubling,” Türk said in a prepared statement that called for the release of journalists detained “solely for doing their jobs.” 

The U.N. human rights office says the number of imprisoned journalists in Russia has reached an all-time high since Moscow began its war of aggression in Ukraine, noting that at least 30 journalists are currently detained on a variety of criminal charges. 

The charges include terrorism, extremism, spying, treason, extortion, violating the provisions of the law on foreign agents, inciting mass disturbances, illegal possession of explosives and illegal possession of drugs. 

Türk, who expressed concern about the frequent use “of the broad legislative framework to combat terrorism and extremism,” called on Russian authorities to amend the legislation in compliance “with international human rights law.” 

U.N. officials report 12 of the 30 jailed reporters are serving sentences ranging from five-and-a-half to 22 years in prison. 

“Since March, at least seven journalists have faced administrative or criminal charges,” Ravina Shamdasani, spokesperson for the high commissioner, told journalists Tuesday in Geneva. 

She observed that all seven are Russian journalists who have faced the charges “for criticism of Russia’s actions in Ukraine or for alleged links to the late opposition politician Alexey Navalny, and his Anti-Corruption Foundation (FBK),” which Russia labeled extremist in 2021. 

According to the 2024 World Press Freedom Index produced by Paris-based Reporters Without Borders, Russia ranked 162nd out of 180 countries. Commenting on the designation, authors of the annual report said that Russian President Vladimir Putin, who “was unsurprisingly reelected in 2024, continues to wage a war in Ukraine” that “has had a big impact on the media ecosystem and journalists’ safety.” 

The latest report by the U.S.-based Committee to Protect Journalists finds “Russia holds a disproportionate number of foreign reporters in its jails,” noting that 12 of the 17 foreign nationals currently detained worldwide “are held by Russia.” 

Two are U.S. citizens. Wall Street Journal reporter Evan Gershkovich has been held in pre-trial detention by Russia since March 2023 on charges of espionage, while Alsu Kurmasheva of VOA sister network Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty has been detained since October 2023 for failing to register as a “foreign agent.” Both detainees and their employers vehemently reject the charges as bogus and politically motivated. 

The 10 other foreign journalists imprisoned by Russia are from Ukraine, including five Crimean Tatars. 

“Russia is a place where it is very risky to be a journalist these days if you are reporting on issues that are very sensitive to the authorities,” Shamdasani said. “What is worrying us is the lack of transparency. 

“The fact that independent journalists are being cracked down on leads to a level of uncertainty and facilitates a climate of misinformation, disinformation, chaos and panic for people who do not know what their rights are in these circumstances,” she said. 

U.N. human rights chief Türk is calling for an immediate end “to the intense crackdown on journalists’ independent work,” describing the right to inform as a critical “component of the right to freedom of expression [that] needs to be upheld.” 

“Journalists should be able to work in a safe environment without fear of reprisals in line with Russia’s international human rights obligations,” he said.

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