Reporters Without Borders (RSF) has condemned a raid by dozens of police officers on Chernovik, an independent weekly in Russia’s North Caucasus region of Daghestan, as being part of an "unacceptable witch-hunt."
The October 2 search of the newspaper's headquarters in the regional capital, Makhachkala, by armed and masked policemen was linked to an investigation into Abdulmumin Gadzhiyev, a Chernovik journalist held since June on terrorism charges.
"This heavy-handed raid has seriously compromised the confidentiality of Chernovik’s sources and its ability to successfully conduct sensitive investigations" Johann Bihr, the head of Reporters Without Borders' Eastern Europe and Central Asia desk, said in a statement.
"It also sends a very clear chilling message to all the media, which have rallied with unusual energy in support of [Gadzhiyev]," Bihr added.
In their raid, police stormed into Chernovik’s headquarters, locked the only two journalists present in an office, and then carried out a search "without waiting for the newspaper's lawyer or a representative of its management," the Paris-based media-freedom watchdog said.
The Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe's representative on freedom of the media, Harlem Desir, expressed concern over the search, and called on the authorities to "ensure that the media outlet can continue to work unimpeded."
Gadzhiyev was initially charged with "funding terrorism," an accusation that was later changed to "inciting" the funding of terrorism.
However, police experts concluded in a report submitted to investigators last week that the 2013 article about an Islamic charity foundation, which was cited as evidence, contained no proof to support the charge.
"Everything indicates that the security services are going all out to rescue an investigation whose last prop had just collapsed," Bihr said.
New York-based Human Rights Watch (HRW) said the prosecutions of Gadzhiyev and another Russian journalist facing "bogus" terrorism charges, Svetlana Prokopyeva, were "clear attempts by the Russian government to silence its critics in the media."
"While the cases may be different, they send a chilling and unambiguous message to all journalists in Russia," it added.
The HRW statement said Gadzhiyev and his paper have reported extensively on Russia’s misuse of terrorism charges against Salafis, who follow a fundamentalist interpretation of Sunni Islam.
“In fact, the government’s widespread crackdown" against Salafis in Daghestan "left Chernovik as the only public discussion platform for moderate Salafis," it said.
One of the most popular newspapers in the Muslim-majority republic of Daghestan, Chernovik has been a "frequent target of harassment," according to RSF.
In 2011, the weekly was acquitted of charges of colluding with terrorism. Its founder, Khadzhimurad Kamalov, was gunned down a few months later.
Russia is ranked 149th out of 180 countries in Reporters Without Borders' 2019 World Press Freedom Index.