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Russian Authorities Back Down On The Arrest Of An Investigative Journalist


Something rare happened in Russia today. Facing a huge public outcry and protest demonstrations, the government dropped criminal charges against an investigative journalist. Police had arrested the reporter, Ivan Golunov, late Thursday on what were widely seen as trumped-up drug charges. Immediately, fellow journalists, including some at state-supported media, rallied to his cause. They were joined by Russian celebrities, who criticized abuse by the security services. Evan Gershkovich of the Moscow Times has been following this story. He is on the line now from Moscow. Hey there.

EVAN GERSHKOVICH: Hi, Mary Louise. Thanks for having me.

KELLY: So for Americans who may not know who Ivan Golunov is, tell me a little bit about him and his work that might have set this chain of events in motion.

GERSHKOVICH: So Ivan for the past about 10 years has been one of Russia's foremost investigative journalists. And a recent story that he was working on that he did in 2018 was on corruption in the funeral business. And he was currently working on a follow-up story that he'd been doing for the past several months.

KELLY: And how did he come to be arrested on drug charges?

GERSHKOVICH: On Thursday afternoon, once he filed that story, he was going to meet another journalist, and in the center of Moscow, two police people ran up to him, grabbed him and started searching him and found drugs in his backpack that he claimed he had never seen in his life. He wouldn't sign any documents to attest to the fact that those were his drugs. And he has said that he had received warnings to not be working on this specific story in the lead-up to his arrest last Thursday.

KELLY: So I gather over the weekend, this built to this dramatic moment at the courthouse in Moscow. Journalists and other people are gathered outside. What happened?

GERSHKOVICH: The windows to the courthouse were open given that it's summer, and he heard those people shouting his name, and he essentially broke down in tears, which becomes the main image that every newspaper, news outlet, TV station has run with for the past few days.

KELLY: Worth noting how unusual this is to have the press demonstrating on behalf of one of their own in solidarity in a country that is not renowned for embracing a free press.

GERSHKOVICH: Yeah, absolutely. I mean, I think it speaks to who Ivan is. One of the things to point out what we haven't said yet that is beyond journalists, a lot of others joined in in protest. There was a flash mob on Facebook about people changing their profile pictures to demand his freedom. The three main business dailies published a unified cover on Monday that read I am - we are Ivan Golunov. So there was huge public response that we also haven't seen around many issues in quite a while.

KELLY: So fast-forward to today. The government has dropped all charges. He's a free man. How did they explain this?

GERSHKOVICH: There were already signals over the weekend that the Kremlin wanted this problem to go away. Putin's popularity ratings have been dropping for quite some time, and he has his annual call-in show on June 20. And the head police chief in announcing that the case should be dropped said there was a lack of sufficient evidence. And two key policemen will be suspended upon further review. So they have essentially thrown a couple people under the bus so far.

KELLY: What's next? Do the protests continue? Do we know what's next for Golunov?

GERSHKOVICH: Tomorrow there was set to be a march through central Moscow in support of Ivan. And on Facebook, 25,000 people said they were interested in attending this march.

KELLY: Even though he's been released and all charges dropped, this could go ahead.

GERSHKOVICH: Exactly. And people are posting that they're not coming out so much for Ivan as for people like him, including other journalists who are currently sitting in jail on essentially fabricated, trumped-up charges.

KELLY: Sounds like you could be in for another interesting day there in Moscow tomorrow. Evan Gershkovich of the Moscow Times, thank you.

GERSHKOVICH: Thanks, Mary Louise. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.