27 August 2020
Vera Vasilieva is an independent journalist, host of Radio Liberty’s ‘Freedom and Memorial,’ and laureate of the Moscow Helsinki Group Prize for Human Rights
When I read the news, I get an increasingly distinct sense of déjà-vu, and not only in regard to the very important events in Belarus, which remind me of the surge in popular protests in this country after the 2006 presidential elections that encountered harsh suppression from law enforcement. I’m also thinking about the persecution of journalists in Russia and inevitably recall the summer of last year. Then we had Ivan Golunov, the picketing at Moscow’s Nikulinsky district court, the protests against the arrest of the Meduza reporter, and the mistrust of official accusations connected with the alleged discovery of drugs on a journalist. Right now, another Ivan (Safronov), another journalist, another very serious but at the same time, from the standpoint of many former colleagues, incredible charge of state treason, and more picketing and the detention of peaceful citizens. Ivan Safronov, a former correspondent for Kommersant and Vedomosti who worked for a brief time as an advisor to the head of Roskosmos, was arrested on 7 July.
Recently a charity auction was held at the Sakharov Center to raise material assistance for Ivan, people are writing him letters to support him morally, and there is a Facebook group, Freedom for Safronov! coordinating all this public activity. However, six weeks after he was remanded in custody, it is clear that Safronov’s friends and supporters have been unable to overcome the situation quickly and secure the journalist’s release, as happened with Golunov, and now, I fear, they are unlikely to. It takes not only the help of lawyers, but long and painstaking work by committed people to monitor the situation’s development, shine a light on it in the press and social networks, and support the prisoner.
Perhaps it was then, when Golunov was detained, a little more than a year ago, that people started talking about professional solidarity as a significant phenomenon. That time they were able to snatch the journalist back. Golunov was not remanded in custody, and later his criminal investigation was halted. Why didn’t this happen with Safronov? The reason, I think, is not only that it was a very serious organization, the FSB [Federal Security Service], acting against it, and not only do we know many examples of provocations with drugs organized by law enforcement, as happened with Golunov, but the phenomenon of “spies” is after all still very limited in number (although becoming more numerous; if previously there were scholar-“spies,” then now those are over and it’s journalists’ turn).
The reason, I believe, lies in that very same professional solidarity. When doctors stand up for doctors (recall the story with hematologist Elena Misiurina), actors for actors (as in the incident with Pavel Ustinov), rappers for rappers, journalists for journalists (the recent case of Svetlana Prokopyeva), this is very good and right. It’s worked so far. But it’s not enough. I’ve had occasion to hear another opinion about the Prokopyeva case, that the FSB was “hurt” by what the journalist said, inasmuch as not only did the terrorist Zhlobitsky die in the explosion at the Arkhangelsk office of the special services, but “their people” suffered, too, and there could be no intonation other than one of harsh condemnation.
From my point of view, as long as we’re going to think like this – that this is someone else’s business, the business of some separate group of people, some “profession,” but not our own, personal one in any way – arrests will be made and unjust verdicts will be issued. Let me remind you that the decision to remand Golunov in custody provoked truly universal indignation that splashed far beyond the journalism profession. I remember many of the most varied people, by no means only journalists, who gathered at the Nikulinsky courthouse. Now the state, evidently, has recovered from the initial shock provoked by manifestations of civil solidarity and is demonstrating its usual indifferent attitude toward citizens’ opinions.
What does it, the state, care about a few dozen or even hundreds of citizens going out to picket in support of Safronov, writing to him at the Lefortovo remand centre, and participating in efforts to support the journalist? Compared with Moscow’s population, this is lower than statistical error. These people can be completely ignored, and the state can continue to act in the same vein, that is, imprison people who are inconvenient and undesirable. Is there really no more than this handful of people in Moscow? I’m not calling anyone to the barricades; each person has to decide for themselves how to express their point of view. I’m talking about indifference and involvement, about the ability to perceive someone else’s misfortune and pain as one’s own.
Translated by Marian Schwartz