Reporters Without Borders is shocked to learn that Elena Kostyuchenko, a reporter for the opposition newspaper Novaya Gazeta, and Yury Timofeyev, a reporter for Prague-based Radio Liberty, were arrested while covering the violent dispersal of environmentalists who had camped out at Khimki forest, north of Moscow, in an attempt to prevent part of it being torn down. The press freedom organisation also condemns the physical mistreatment of Kostyuchenko at the time of her arrest and regrets that journalists continue to have problems covering demonstrations in Russia because the police often treat them as if they were themselves protesters.
Kostyuchenko and Timofeyev were taken to a nearby police station following their arrest on the edge of Khimki forest on 23 July. Both were manhandled at the time of arrest and Kostyuchenko sustained a neck injury as a result of a violent blow. She subsequently fell ill while in the police van that took them to the police station. It was only after being summarily tried and released that Kostyuchenko was taken to a hospital, where doctors diagnosed a displacement of the cervical vertebrae. Timofeyev had meanwhile been quickly released for lack of evidence. Kostyuchenko has decided to press charges against the police for “detention, mistreatment and damage to health” while Novaya Gazeta has filed a complaint accusing the police of “illegal action.” The Russian Union of Journalists may also bring a legal action. Journalists had rushed to the forest on learning that about 100 men with white T-shirts covering their faces arrived at the environmentalists’ camp at 5 a.m. and set about destroying their tents and tearing up their banners. Police and members of the interior ministry special forces (OMON) who arrived an hour later, manhandled and arrested both environmental activists and journalists (see the video on Radio Free Europe website: http://www.rferl.org/video/9178.html) In all, about 30 arrests were made. Environmentalists have been campaigning for several years against plans to fell part of Khimki forest in order to building a motorway between Moscow and St. Petersburg. Mikhail Beketov, the editor of the local newspaper Khimkinskaya Pravda and a staunch supporter of the campaign to defend the forest, was badly beaten outside his home by unidentified assailants and left for dead on 13 November 2008. After a long period in a coma and the amputation of a leg, Beketov is still in very poor health. His public defence of the forest was almost certainly the motive for the attack (see the Reporters Without Borders report entitled “Deforestation and pollution, high-risk subjects”). The events of 23 July reflect Russia’s frequent failure to respect two rights linked to free expression: the freedom of assembly and association, in accordance with article 31 of Russia’s civil code, and the freedom of journalists to cover protests and demonstrations.