MOSCOW — The police in Moscow on Friday announced the detention of an investigative journalist on drug charges, in what appeared to be the latest official effort to muzzle independent voices in Russia.
Ivan Golunov, 36, a reporter who has specialized in exposing corruption in Moscow City Hall, was detained on Thursday on his way to meet a fellow reporter. Mr. Golunov works for Meduza, an online news service.
Russian law enforcement agencies have been known to arrest journalists or civil society activists on drug or other manufactured charges, and Mr. Golunov’s employer said that the drugs had been planted.
Illegal narcotics were found in his backpack, according to a police statement, and a search of Mr. Golunov’s apartment turned up more drugs as well as scales, prompting officers to open a criminal investigation. A conviction on charges of preparing to sell drugs can carry a jail sentence of up to 15 years.
Mr. Golunov said that officers planted two packages containing an unknown substance in his backpack, according to Russian press reports.
In addition, the police released photographs that they said were taken in Mr. Golunov’s apartment, showing what looked like laboratory equipment and open, clear sacks of white powder. Only one of the nine photographs seemed to have been taken in his apartment, Meduza quoted his family as saying.
Mr. Golunov made a name for himself in Moscow for his reports chronicling corruption and incompetence in City Hall. His stories this year included an exposé about how relatives of a deputy mayor had earned tens of millions of dollars on city contracts that they then used to buy expensive Moscow real estate, and how a firm that completed a controversial restoration of a famous fountain had a history of corruption.
“We are convinced that Ivan Golunov is innocent,” the publisher of Meduza, Galina Timchenko, and its editor in chief, Ivan Kolpakov, said in a statement from the news service’s headquarters in Riga, Latvia. “Moreover, we have reason to believe he’s been targeted because of his work as a journalist.”
The arrest provoked an outpouring of criticism and mockery from journalists, lawyers and opposition politicians on social media. Yuri Dud, a star interviewer on YouTube, wrote on Twitter: “Today: You find nine penthouses owned by relatives of Moscow’s deputy mayor. Tomorrow: You are found possessing dope.”
Mr. Golunov and his lawyer insisted that the police take samples from his fingernails and clothing to prove that he had not handled any drugs, but they refused, Meduza said. The police issued a series of statements denying that the photos it had released were staged, but later admitted that they were not from Mr. Golunov’s apartment. They also denied that he had been beaten after his arrest.
Mr. Golunov’s lawyer, Dmitri Dzhulay, could not immediately be reached for comment.
Meduza was founded by reporters who left Russia for Latvia after Ms. Timchenko was fired as the head of the independent news agency Lenta.ru in 2014 and its reporting began toeing the official government line.
The Union of Journalists called on its members to stage one-man pickets outside police headquarters on Friday evening — group protests require a permit from City Hall. Some of those who appeared were detained immediately, but Meduza reported later on Friday that the 12 picketers detained by police had been released.
There have been various cases in recent years of civil society activists and journalists facing similar drug charges.
Oyub Titiev, 61, an activist who worked for an organization investigating accusations of human rights abuse in Chechnya, was sentenced in March to four years in a penal colony on drug possession charges widely seen as manufactured.
Zhalaudi Geriyev, a journalist who covered the Caucasus region, was found guilty by a Russian court of drug possession in 2016 and was recently released after serving a three-year sentence.