Reporters Without Borders (RSF) is calling on the European Union to impose further sanctions on Russian officials after "more than 50 journalists were arbitrarily detained" during nationwide anti-government protests last weekend.
The Paris-based media-freedom watchdog made the call on January 26, three days after media covering rallies in support of jailed Kremlin critic Aleksei Navalny were subjected to an "unusually extensive and heavy-handed" crackdown to "prevent them from showing the scale of support for a government opponent."
"The police deliberately targeted certain media, going so far as to enter a private apartment in order to cut off a video feed of the demonstrations, and in a sign of the totally disproportionate nature of the crackdown, even clearly-identified reporters wearing 'press' vests or armbands were held for several hours," Jeanne Cavelier, the head of RSF's Eastern Europe and Central Asia desk, said in a statement.
Cavelier called on the Russian authorities to end this "blatant obstruction of the freedom to inform." He also urged the representative on freedom of the media for the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE), Teresa Ribeiro, to condemn the "violence and arbitrary arrests" and the EU to adopt "new sanctions against Russian officials."
Navalny was detained earlier this month upon returning to Russia from Germany, where he had been recovering from a near-fatal poisoning by a military-grade nerve agent in August he accuses President Vladimir Putin of ordering.
A court is expected to decide on February 2 whether to convert into prison time a suspended sentence in a case that is widely considered trumped up and politically motivated.
Meeting in Brussels on January 25, EU foreign ministers agreed to wait to see if Navalny is released before deciding to impose fresh sanctions.
The EU’s foreign-policy chief, Josep Borrell, said he would go to Moscow next week to urge the authorities to free protesters and Navalny. EU leaders could discuss further action against Russia at a planned summit on March 25-26, he said.
Russia has rebuffed the global outrage and a chorus of international calls calling for Navalny's release.
In its statement, Reporters Without Borders said the "extraordinary figure" of more than 50 detentions of reporters, some of whom were "subjected to police violence," is based on data compiled by the independent political watchdog OVD-Info, the Russian Journalists and Media Workers Union, and information gathered directly by RSF.
It cited the case of the independent TV channel Dozhd, which it said was "censored in mid-transmission when police cut the power supply to a Moscow apartment from which its crew was broadcasting."
Dozhd reporter Aleksei Korostelev and cameraman Sergei Novikov were then detained "on the pretext of verifying their identity."
Also in Moscow, riot police hit a reporter for the independent triweekly Novaya Gazeta, Elizaveta Kirpanova, with their batons "for several minutes," dealing some blows to her head, although she was "clearly identifiable by her 'press' vest and badge," according to RSF.
The group noted that police had already tried to intimidate journalists and media outlets in the run-up to the unsanctioned demonstrations across Russia, which attracted tens of thousands of people and saw more than 3,700 people detained, according to OVD-Info.
Human Rights Watch (HRW) has said "extreme" police brutality and "mass" arbitrary detentions during the protests are further evidence of "how low human rights standards have plummeted" in the country.