MOSCOW (Reuters) - Russian police harassed and detained two Norwegian journalists on their way to Sochi, venue of the 2014 winter Olympics, a rights group and their television station said on Tuesday.
Human Rights Watch said in a statement the International Olympic Committee (IOC) must demand an explanation from authorities and insist that no further incidents of this kind occurred.
HRW said police accused one of the journalists from Norway’s TV2, the country’s official games broadcaster, of taking drugs and both had their luggage searched.
The Krasnodar regional police, who oversee Sochi, were not available to comment.
A TV2 representative confirmed its crew was in Russia last week to report on Olympic preparations, but was not allowed to do their job by police.
“There is no doubt is that their main purpose was to obstruct our work,” news director Jan Ove Aarsaether told Reuters. “Of course they haven’t been drunk or on drugs, they had been working very professionally.”
Russia has spent more than $50 billion in preparations for the games and President Vladimir Putin has staked his international reputation on the success of the event in the Black Sea resort town.
Jane Buchanan, HRW’s associate director for Europe and Central Asia, said the International Olympic Committee, “needs to demand a full explanation from the Russian authorities about the bullying of an Olympic broadcaster’s staff and insist that no other journalists suffer this kind of intimidation and harassment.”
Russian media has focused almost exclusively on the successes of the games preparations. Any criticism of the increased police presence and the environmental impact of construction for the games has been limited mainly to personal blogs.
The HRW statement said that the journalists had been detained several times travelling in and out of the Sochi region, which borders the volatile North Caucasus.
One of them was forced to drive to a local drug clinic after officers claimed he might be on narcotics. This incident ended only when another officer arrived at the centre saying there had been a ‘misunderstanding’.
Police did not give clear reasons as to why the reporters were targeted, according to the HRW report.
However the journalists were quoted as saying that an unidentified officer had told them their rented car’s plate had been notified to police posts by the Federal Security Service, a successor of the KGB.
Another policeman inquired if they were planning to report “anything negative” on the Olympics, the journalists said.
“The Russian authorities tried almost every pressure tactic in the book to try to scare these journalists away from critical reporting on Sochi and other Olympics-related topics,” Buchanan said.
Russia ranks 148th out of 179 countries on the World Press Freedom index compiled by the journalist watchdog Reporters Without Borders. Pressure on the media in Russia has increased since Putin returned to power last year following an unprecedented wave of opposition protests.
Reporting By Thomas Grove, additional reporting by Balazs Koranyi in Oslo; editing by Barry Moody