Russia's main opposition newspaper Novaya Gazeta on Wednesday accused the country's chief investigator of taking its top journalist into a forest and threatening to kill him.
The newspaper's editor Dmitry Muratov alleged in an open letter that the head of the Investigative Committee, which probes major crimes, threatened its deputy editor Sergei Sokolov over an article criticising the committee's work.
Contacted by AFP Wednesday, Muratov said Sokolov "had been forced to leave the country" and that he could not be reached by telephone.
The Investigative Committee declined to comment when contacted by AFP and made no public statement on the claims.
President Vladimir Putin "has been told of the media reports on this topic," his press secretary Dmitry Peskov told the Interfax news agency.
"You brutally threatened the life of my deputy editor," Muratov wrote in his open letter to Investigative Committee chief Alexander Bastrykin. He called for "security guarantees" for his deputy and other reporters.
"You even joked that you would be the one investigating the (murder) case."
The journalist and the investigator allegedly quarrelled on a trip they took together last Monday, Muratov wrote in the letter, published on the newspaper's website.
After coming back to Moscow, Bastrykin's "security guards put Sokolov into a car and took him to a forest in the Moscow region" where the official made the threats, Muratov wrote.
Five journalists were detained Wednesday afternoon as they picketed the Investigative Committee building over the allegations, Moscow Echo radio station reported, naming four as being on its staff.
Political journalist Sergei Parkhomenko was detained after holding a placard saying "I demand an independent investigation," the station reported.
One of those held, Alina Grebnyova, told Ridus citizen journalist website that all were later released without charge, as opposition activists continued the picket Wednesday evening.
Bastrykin's threats concerned an article published on June 4 in which Sokolov lambasted Bastrykin for an overly light punishment given to a man convicted of covering up a 2010 mass murder, Muratov wrote.
Twelve people, including children, were brutally killed in the southern town of Kushchevskaya in a crime blamed on fighting between clans. The man convicted of helping conceal the crime kept his freedom and was recently fined 150,000 rubles ($4,600).
Novaya Gazeta, a tri-weekly paper known for its investigative reporting and fervent opposition to President Vladimir Putin, has lost several journalists in unresolved murders over the past decade.
In 2006, its top investigative reporter Anna Politkovskaya was gunned down in her apartment building in a case that shook the world and is still being investigated with no one punished more than five years later.
The website of Novaya Gazeta has crashed periodically since Tuesday morning when the editors reported a hacker attack on the day of a mass protest in Moscow.
Despite recent arrests and threats against journalists, some remain optimistic about the future of Russian medias.
The Doha Centre for Media Freedom spoke to Thabang Motsei, a South African journalist for gouvernment-funded media network Russia Today who beliebes that " things will be changing in both predominately controlled agencies and private ones"
Giving an insight on the media landscape in Russia, she said that "Russian media is split into different camps and the blogsphere is also growing, were more people and journalists are looking to get vocal about their politics. Like in any country, there are pro government agencies and there are a small number of "unbiased" media.You only have to see how the election and post election rhetoric has been. It's been a balance of both sides."
Read Thabang Motsei's full article here.