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How journalists in Russia’s Khabarovsk are being targeted and why the world should know about it

People march during an unsanctioned protest in support in Khabarovsk. Source: AAP

People in the Russian city of Khabarovsk have been protesting since July 2020 against the arrest of the democratically elected governor of the region. However, several journalists covering these protest demonstrations have been arrested and re-arrested - sparking allegations of suppression of free speech.

A city of 600,000 in the Russian far east, Khabarovsk took political centre stage with the arrest of Sergei Furgal, the region's governor, on 9 July. He was taken to Moscow where he faces charges of multiple killings and attempted assassinations in 2004-2005.  

Since then his supporters in Khabarovsk have been protesting. They gather in the city's Lenin Square every week, calling for his transfer to Khabarovsk. At its height, the protest movement saw tens of thousands of people participate in demonstrations. The number of protestors has since dwindled.   

Who is Sergei Furgal and why people support him?

In 2018 gubernatorial election for Khabarovsk, Mr Furgal (50) won a landslide victory against the candidate from Russian president Vladimir Putin's United Russia party.

Many Russian journalists and sociologist say that after this win, he became a symbol of the fight against Russia's federal government.

Governor Furgal appears in Moscow court over murder allegations
Sergei Furgal at Moscow's Basmanny District Court in July 2020.
Getty Images

After his arrest, he was removed from his position, and a new governor from Mr Furgal's nationalist Liberal Democratic Party of Russia has been appointed the governor. 

Mr Furgal's arrest, his detention in Moscow and the arbitrary appointment of the new governor have angered people in Khabarovsk. 

'Arrest carousel'

The most intense protests took place during the Russian summer when tens of thousands of people came out in support of the former governor. 

But it's not just the protesters who faced a police crackdown as the demonstrations have continued, multiple journalists and bloggers have been arrested too. Some journalists have been arrested and re-arrested on fresh charges as soon as they were released, in a merry-go-round fashion. 

Alexey Filimonov is a journalist in Khabarovsk who has been covering the protests in the city since they started in July. He was arrested and charged with participating in unauthorised protests. 

"The authorities are focused on stopping the export of the Khabarovsk protest to other regions," he told SBS Russian. 

Ekaterina Biyak, a journalist with online media Activatica, says she was arrested during a live broadcast.

“Someone told me that a man was being detained at the other end of the square. As soon as I approached, police officers immediately fell out of a nearby police car and ran up to me," she says.

Ms Biyak says she had a press card and that she should not have been detained since she was doing her professional duty.

She was charged with participating in an unauthorised protest march on September 13, and for violating federal law "on meetings, rallies, demonstrations, processions and picketing".

The trial took place the next day. She was found guilty and fined 10,000 rubles (AUD 200).

And as soon as I try to leave the hall, they immediately tell me that they will detain me under a second article, and there is a second protocol. 

The re-arrest was also caught on video. As Ms Biyak left the courthouse, she was asked if she was going home. A police officer standing nearby said: "No, not home."

“I was taken to the police station again and registered again - now for September 15th. We again went to spend the night in the special detention centre."

Furgal supporters stage unsanctioned protest in Khabarovsk, Russia
Supporters of former Khabarovsk Territory governor Sergei Furgal hold a banner with a message reading "Hands Off Furgal!" during a mass protest.
Getty Images

The second trial took place on14 November. Ms Biyak was given two days of arrest, and she was released the next day.

She says all the accusatory documents for her and other journalists are identical, with only the names and dates changed. 

Two months ago it was such that even the surnames were not changed. That is, one paragraph contains one surname, and another paragraph contains the surname of the previous accused.

Journalists call this process an arrest carousel.

Blogger and journalist Dmitry Khetagurov was detained on 10 November while he was live broadcasting covering a single picket at the Khabarovsk railway station.

Mr Khetagurov says he was approached by police officers and asked to come with them to the police station. He was charged under the same articles as Ms Biyak and sent to a special detention centre.

“[The court] sentenced me to a day of arrest, which I had already spent in a special detention centre - this also counts as an arrest."

We leave - and the lawyer says that perhaps they will detain me now. I leave the court - and the crew immediately meets me.

Mr Khetagurov was taken to the police station again, and a new protocol was drawn up. The first was for participating in the protest on September 12, and the second one for September 16. The journalist was again taken to the detention centre. Next day at the trial, Mr Khetagurov was sentenced to five days of administrative arrest.

Newsader journalist Aleksey Filimonov, who was detained in early October at the entrance of his home, thinks that he may have been followed, like Ms Biyak.

He says he was approached by an employee of the "Centre E" (anti-extremism police), then a traffic police car drove up and he was taken to the police station. 

Mr Filimonov was detained on October 8 and released pending a trial on October 13.

“The judge was provided with a press card, an employment contract with the editorial board,” he says. 

However, this did not help; he was fined 10,000 rubles (AUD 200).

Between these two events - the detention and the trial - he was detained a second time, on October 10. According to him, this happened after the protest action, when he talked with a Japanese journalist.

The second time, he was fined 15,000 rubles.

According to The Trade Union of Journalists and Media Workers of Russia, at least nine Khabarovsk reporters and bloggers have found themselves in a similar situation.

Dmitry Khetagurov says it's important that the world knows what's happening in Khabarovsk. 

"This is total lawlessness, [authorities] act against the law and all democratic values, that's why it's important to know about it."

He says journalists are being framed in false cases to stop them from reporting. 

Reporters Without Borders, an international non-profit that works for freedom of information, condemned the alleged crackdown against the journalist in Khabarovsk and has called for an independent investigation into the abuses against media personnel. 

Committee to Protect Journalists is asking the Russian authorities to drop charges against journalists who were detained for covering protests in Khabarovsk. 

“Russian authorities should immediately release all journalists who were detained while covering recent protests in Khabarovsk, drop any charges against them, and stop their campaign of harassment against reporters for simply doing their jobs,” Gulnoza Said, CPJ’s Europe and Central Asia program coordinator said.

“Journalists in Russia should be able to cover crucial political events freely, without being intimidated, fined, harassed, and silenced by the state.”