MOSCOW - A Russian court has found a journalist guilty of “justifying terrorism” — but issued a fine rather than imprisonment in a closely watched case with implications for press freedoms in Russia.
Svetlana Prokopyeva, 40, a freelance reporter in the western Russian city of Pskov, was charged by prosecutors over a column she wrote in November 2018.
Her piece — first aired on a local radio station and later published online — questioned whether Russia’s repressive political environment may have influenced a suicide bomb attack by a Russian teenager outside the Federal Security Service (FSB) headquarters in the city of Arkhangelsk.
“Of course we should discuss the reasons behind political acts of terrorism,” said Prokopyeva in an interview with VOA ahead of the verdict. “So they don’t happen again.”
“My column was about how the state, with its repression actions against civil society, closes off legal means to protest,” she said. “But that energy doesn’t just disappear. It just takes more unhealthy forms.”
Despite the guilty verdict and fine, there was clear relief among Prokopyeva’s supporters at the outcome: prosecutors had been asking for 6 years imprisonment and a 4 year ban from the journalism profession.
Prokopyeva had arrived at the court with a bag packed expecting the worst.
But emerging onto the courthouse steps following the decision, Prokopyeva was greeted with applause and a box of donations to help cover the court ordered fine of 500,000 rubles — approximately $7000.
“I wouldn’t be walking out this door right now if it weren’t for all of you,” said Prokopyeva.
Dressed in a t-shirt that said “We Will Not Shut Up,” Prokopyeva insisted she would appeal the guilty verdict.
The 4th estate
During the trial, Prokopyeva provided a vigorous defense of journalists' role in society and insisted she was being punished for merely doing her job.
"I am not afraid to criticize the government," Prokopyeva said in her final statement to the court last week. "I am not afraid to criticize law enforcement or tell the security organs that they are wrong. Because I know how really horrific it will become if I don’t speak out — if no one speaks out.”
“It’s my responsibility and professional obligation to raise hot button issues and talk about problems that are important,” she told VOA.
Prokopyeva noted that by bringing the charges, authorities had merely elevated attention to her column — expanding her small audience in Pskov to tens of thousands of readers across Russia and beyond.
The European Union, Human Rights Watch, the Committee to Protect Journalists, and Reporters Without Borders were among organizations who criticized Russia over the case.
After the verdict, Human Rights Watch issued a statement calling the charges “bogus” and a “devastating blow” to press freedoms in Russia.
Russia’s journalistic community also rallied to her cause, with editors and reporters from 30 independent publications expressing solidarity.
“It’s a relief but it's no victory” said Andrei Jvirblis, Russia’s representative to Reporters without Borders, in an interview with VOA.
“Without a doubt, this case was designed to intimidate journalists,” he said “We see more and more self-censorship on the rise. Journalists scared to talk about things that aren’t completely safe.”
Indeed, the charges against Prokopyeva highlighted Russia’s opaque anti-terrorism laws — measures that rights groups say have been used expansively by the government to silence and imprison critical voices.
For the past year, Prokopyeva has been on a government list of “terrorists and extremists,” with her bank assets frozen and travel banned. Her apartment has also been repeatedly searched and her electronic devices confiscated.
“I bet if you look carefully at the people on that list, the vast majority have nothing to do with terrorism,” said Prokopyeva. “The regime is cleansing government critics.”
However, a Kremlin spokesman rejected any notion of political overtones in the trial.
“The prosecutor is guided by the law, not the president,” said Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov in a call with reporters on Monday.
“This [case] is a question of observing or not observing existing laws in the Russian Federation in the fight against terrorism,” he added.