- Video report by ITV News Correspondent Martha Fairlie
In an unprecedented show of solidarity, three leading Russian newspapers have published nearly identical front pages to protest the detention of an investigative journalist charged with drug offences.
The front pages of the respected business newspapers Kommersant, Vedomosti and RBK all read ‘I am/We are Ivan Golunov’ and call for a probe into the detention and arrest of the journalist.
Golunov is a reporter for the Latvia-based Russian online newspaper Meduza and is known for exposing corruption among officials in Moscow. He was detained by police in the city on Thursday on his way to a meeting after illegal drugs were found in his rucksack.
On Friday, Moscow police released several photos, reportedly from Golunov's home, of drugs and scales before they retracted the images saying that the pictures were actually taken elsewhere. Over the weekend Golunov was charged with illegally trying to sell drugs and was placed under house arrest.
If convicted, he could be jailed from ten to 20 years.
Golunov’s lawyer said that he believed police had deliberately planted the drugs in order to detain him. The lawyer said that the journalist had been beaten and punched while in police custody, a claim denied by Moscow police.
In a joint statement, the three Russian newspapers said they do not rule out that Golunov’s arrest is related to his work and do not believe the evidence presented against the journalist to be convincing.
The statement goes on to demand a probe into the role of the interior ministry officials involved in the journalist’s detention.
"We expect law enforcement agencies to strictly comply with the law and demand maximum transparency during this investigation," the statement said.
"We believe fulfilling these requirements is crucial not only for the journalistic community of Russia, but also for Russian society as a whole. We demand the law be observed by everyone and for everyone."
Russia’s media landscape is heavily controlled and journalists in Russia who investigate or criticise the authorities have often been threatened, attacked or even murdered.
"This is a striking display of independence by the editorial staff of these newspapers and it is a sign of the increasing desperation of media organisations that this unprecedented step has now been taken," Keir Giles an expert in Russia at the Chatham House think tank told ITV News.
"Measures taken against individual journalists will inevitably have a chilling effect on the media landscape overall because it reinforces the message that proper investigative journalism in Russia requires not just moral but also physical courage," Mr Giles said.
On Monday, Dmitry Peskov, the Kremlin spokesperson, told reporters that President Vladimir Putin is following Golunov’s case. Peskov said he had confidence that prosecutors will look into possible violations of Golunov's rights, and dismissed the suggestion that the police handling of the case undermines public trust in law enforcement agencies.
Journalists and others in Moscow have been protesting outside the headquarters of the Moscow police department for four days in a row, concerned that the law is being used to crack down on those investigating the authorities. Thousands of people online have already said that they will take to the streets on Wednesday to protest against Golunov’s detention.
In an unusual sign of the controversy swirling around Golunov’s arrest, Irada Zeynalova, an anchor for NTV, a pro-Kremlin TV network, referred to the journalist as her colleague and said that his case is now a "truth test" for Russia.
"What our country will become depends on us. Will we be citizens or not and what will we believe in?" Zeynalova said.
"It is very important to understand what actually happened and this must be done as openly and carefully as possible."
Russian state television on Sunday broadcast a programme in which police defended the evidence they had against Golunov while a statement on the Russian Ministry of Internal Affairs website says the case against him is now under the personal control of the chief of the Moscow department of the ministry.