Russia: European Court must protect journalists covering protests

On 11 April 2018, ARTICLE 19, jointly with Media Legal Defence Initiative (MLDI), filed a third-part intervention to the European Court of Human Rights in so called Arctic 30 case (the case Bryan and others v Russia).

The case concerns the arrest and detention of twenty-eight activists and two freelance journalists (Mr Bryan and Mr Sinyakov) in connection with a peaceful protest on a Greenpeace vessel, the Artic Sunrise, in the international waters of the Kara Sea. The protest was part of Greenpeace’s “Save the Artic” campaign, aimed at banning on offshore oil-drilling and industrial fishing in Artic waters. The activists aimed to peacefully protest at the Prirazlomnaya drilling platform of Gazprom (a large Russian company).

In September 2013, the activists attempted to scale the platform but were attacked by the nearby Russian Coast Guard ship. Subsequently, the Artic Sunrise vessel was forcibly placed under the control of the Russian authorities and the activists and journalists were arrested, detained and prosecuted by the Russian authorities under suspicion of the crime of piracy, that was later amended to hooliganism. Following an amnesty from the Russian Parliament, the proceedings against the activists were later discontinued on 24 and 25 December 2013.

In 2014, the activists and journalists filed a case with the European Court of Human Rights arguing that the detention and the imprisonment for peaceful protest violated their rights under the European Convention.

In our intervention, we argue that the European Court should consider the case in the context of the overall situation in Russia, where media and journalists covering environmental issues are subject to frequent physical and legal threats and harassment. As such, the Arctic 30 case is emblematic of such harassment. In particular, we pointed out that Russian authorities have previously misused the provisions on “hooliganism” in the Criminal Code to silence opponents and human rights defenders.

In addition, we provided the European Court with international and comparative material to make the following submissions:

  • The journalistic function is performed by a wide range of actors. The safeguards the Convention provides to journalists should not be confined to individuals who have a contract with a media outlet and/or who are accredited as a journalist in a particular jurisdiction.
  • The imposition of a penalty or sanction against a journalist for observing and collecting information at a protest or demonstration must be subject to the strictest scrutiny and will rarely be justified under Article 10 of the Convention
  • The arrest and detention of a journalist while they are performing their “public watchdog” role will significantly deter journalists from carrying out their journalistic work and will severely interfere with the right guaranteed by Article 10 of the Convention, regardless of whether that journalist was eventually convicted.

In the digital age, ‘journalism’ is a function of a broad range of social communicators who also perform a ‘public watchdogs’ function. There is no need for special accreditation to cover demonstrations except under circumstances where resources, such as time and space at certain events, are limited.

In line with our submission in the case Butkevich v. Russia, we emphasised how journalists covering peaceful protests and demonstration perform a different role to protestors, and that, accordingly, the scope of Article 10 of the Convention entails granting them special protection.

Read the submission