Boris Timoshenko on journalists during the presidential elections

16 March 2012

By Boris Timoshenko, Glasnost Defence Foundation (Moscow)

As expected, reporters had a hard time covering the 4 March presidential elections. They were closely watched by the local electoral committees, police officers and other unidentified individuals. They were expelled from polling stations, detained, bussed to polling stations elsewhere, forbidden to use cameras, required to erase photo images and video footage, assaulted, and deprived of their photo and TV equipment ...

Most commonly, officials claimed that journalists were "encroaching upon voters' personal data", "offering resistance to the police", or "campaigning against United Russia". Other pretexts for their exclusion were "data secrecy", the presence of "other reporters at the polling station" or that there was "no one at the polling station". In some cases it was baldly stated that "the journalists are obstructing the electoral committee in its work".

At times more "exotic" approaches were adopted. In Krasnodar Novaya Gazeta’s correspondent Yevgeny Titov was required to present the text of the RF Law on the Media (!) in addition to his press card. In St. Petersburg, reporters were asked to show a stamped copy of their media outlet’s charter of incorporation and a notarized copy of their newspaper's registration certificate before they could attend the polling station - and this despite the previous day’s announcement by City Electoral Committee Chairman Alexander Krasnyansky that a journalist would be admitted to a polling station on presenting his or her press card or a letter from the editor.

Understandably, journalists attempting to record a variety of violations came under particular pressure. At one polling station in Vologda, a film crew for the Vologda-Portal news website was attacked by unidentified persons. Seeing a man being pushed into a police vehicle, the reporters started filming. They wanted to follow the vehicle to the police station to find out what was happening, said journalist Natalia Shekhireva. "Instead, we were attacked, our cameraman was beaten and his camera and that of our photographer nearly got smashed," she said. "Observers have told us the atmosphere here has been strangely tense since the early morning, so we are trying to figure out what's going on."

At a polling station in Bryansk, Alexander Mikhalenkov of the opposition newspaper Bryanskoye Obozreniye was also beaten for filming procedural violations. To the credit of the police this time, the young man in camouflage fatigues who attacked Mikhalenkov was detained. In Krasnodar, on the other hand, Yevgeny Titov was pushed off his feet and hauled out of the polling station by electoral committee head Alexander Ragulin and a police officer while in St. Petersburg, Albina Abubakirova, a correspondent for the Grazhdansky Golos newspaper, was beaten by electoral committee members while filming what was going on at their polling station.

The "non-violent" detention and removal of journalists from polling stations occurred in the city of Kirov where Alexander Robotinsky, a freelance reporter for the newspaper Bloknot, and a witness of procedural violations, was detained; in Moscow where Pavel Nikulin, a Moscow News correspondent, was ejected for "unauthorised" conversations with observers; while in Alagir, North Ossetia, the Rostov-based journalist Pyotr Bychkov was detained. Correspondents for the Grazhdansky Golos newspaper were subjected to particularly rough treatment: its reporter Yuri Cherkasov was taken to the police station in Chelyabinsk, as were Anton Voronin in Nizhny Novgorod, and Regina Sabirzyanova in Kazan. Other reporters for the newspaper were ousted from polling stations in Barnaul (Siberia), Zheleznodorozhny (Moscow Region), and in St. Petersburg.

The use of photo and video cameras was forbidden throughout Russia, but policemen on duty in Bryansk displayed "extra vigilance", banning the cameras not only inside but also near the polling stations.

In St. Petersburg, violations were witnessed by representatives of at least 15 media outlets, including the newspapers Kommersant v Peterburge, Grazhdansky Golos, Moy Rayon, and Komsomolskaya Pravda; the web journals, Russkiy Reporter and; the web radio station Rupor; the Internet portal Gorod; the regional newspaper Koltushi; Seans magazine; the Finnish newspaper Helsingin Sanomat; and the Communist party newspaper Piterskaya Pravda and Yabloko party newspaper Yabloko Rossii,. "This is far from an exhaustive list of the media that found themselves under pressure", reported the Lenizdat web portal.

As we see, the vote was indeed marked by a “high degree of activity”. And, it seems, the authorities did have something to hide ...