ARTICLE 19, the Media Legal Defence Initiative (MLDI), andthe Mass Media Defence Centre (MMDC) have submitted a joint intervention to the European Court of Human Rights (ECtHR) in the case of Butkevich v. Russia, urging it to strengthen the human rights protection afforded to those reporting on protests.
The case has been brought to the European Court by Maksim Butkevich, a Ukrainian journalist who covered protests taking place in St Petersburg during the G8 Summit of 2006. On 16 July 2006, he photographed one protest that was subject to police intervention. During the dispersion of protestors by police, he was ordered by one police officer to switch off his camera. He was subsequently taken to a police station and, despite complying with the order, explaining his actions and clearly identifying himself as a journalist, he was arrested for “participation in a non-authorised march and creating a risk of accident threatening his own and others’ lives and limb”. He was eventually convicted under the Code of Administrative Offences to two days’ detention.
The European Court recently considered, in Pentikäinen v. Finland, the human rights implications of police action, and criminal sanctions, against a journalist in the context of his reporting on a protest. In that case, the Grand Chamber held that there was no violation of the right to freedom of expression where the journalist did not follow a police order to leave the scene of a demonstration that had turned violent. In its judgment, the Grand Chamber placed emphasis on the fact that journalists are not immune from criminal liability, and considered it relevant that the journalist failed to wear distinctive clothing or other signs identifying him as a journalist.
ARTICLE 19, MLDI and MMDC are deeply concerned by the treatment of Maksim Butkevich, who has been targeted simply for doing his job. His arrest, detention and conviction raise serious concerns regarding freedom of expression, and the law enforcement’s response to newsgathering, in Russia. Given this context, the interveners believe that the European Court should avoid following the approach adopted in Pentikäinen due to its negative implications for freedom of expression across the Council of Europe and beyond, and its potential to put journalists’ security and rights at risk.
The joint intervention outlines the international standards on press freedom in respect to protests. More specifically, the intervention also considers the serious implications of a general requirement on journalists to identify themselves during protests, and the potential “chilling effect” of criminal sanctions and measures when they are imposed on journalists despite their distinct role in protests.
We would like to thank Caoilfhionn Gallagher and Keina Yoshida of Doughty Street Chambers for drafting the intervention, and Otto Volgenant, Prof. Dr. Dirk Voorhoof, and Marie-Andrée Weiss for their valuable input.