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Criminalization of speech a serious setback for Russia

Thousands gathered in December 2011 to protest the alleged vote rigging in parliamentary elections. (AP/Alexander Zemlianichenko)

Shortly after the May 7 presidential inauguration of Vladimir Putin, the Russian parliament passed four major bills in record time--all of them meant to counter the protests that first erupted in the country in December 2011.

The first bill, a law on public rallies, directly contradicts the Russian Constitution and significantly restricts the right for citizens to peacefully assemble and protest. The second one, a law on non-governmental organizations that receive grants from abroad, labels all citizens working in that sector as "foreign agents." Two other laws--one forces websites to block banned content; the other recriminalizes defamation and drastically increases the penalties--give the powers that be broad authority over local journalists and news outlets.

Paradoxically, Aleksandr Khinshtein, one of the authors of the bill recriminalizing defamation, is a journalist himself (as well as a deputy of the State Duma). What's even more surprising is that the bill received support from the Moscow-based Russian Union of Journalists (RUJ).

RUJ chairman Vsevolod Bogdanov told CPJ that "when Khinshtein called me in June and told me about the bill, I told him that I am categorically against libelous and ordered articles. Journalists must be held responsible for those," he said. "It is another matter what form that bill finally took when it was approved by the Duma and signed by the president. And, undoubtedly, we will defend journalists from unsubstantiated charges of defamation."

One would agree with Bogdanov if he were referring to the information war waged by the pro-government media on Russia's civil society. In early spring, for example, the government-controlled federal television channel NTV aired a series of documentaries that smeared human rights defenders, opposition activists, and the leaders of Russia's protest movement who were rallying against the flawed parliamentary and presidential elections. Two of the films--Foreigners Will Help Them, which first aired in February, and Anatomy of a Protest, which first aired in March--were widely criticized as having been doctored and constructed to defame civil activists as traitors of Russia who had been paid by the U.S. State Department to protest against authorities. The films were shown on primetime television and aired repeatedly.

Bogdanov told CPJ that "Russian state media is involved in propaganda and can be, in fact, considered the main libeler," and that the new bill might allow for a case to be started against such outlets, but, he admitted, "there hasn't been such a precedent as of yet."

The Russian Press Council, an independent institute for media self-regulation, recently responded to a complaint filed by journalists and human rights defenders against NTV in connection with the documentaries and declared the films to be "state propaganda that violates the principles of journalistic ethic." But NTV ignored the declaration, refused to acknowledge the press council authority, and failed to participate in related council hearings.

According to the Voronezh-based Mass Media Defense Center (MMDC), an independent advocacy group, winning a defamation case against a state media outlet is extremely difficult.

But the situation is different where independent and pro-opposition media are concerned. According to lawyers for MMDC, the number of cases filed--and won--by state officials against such media has grown in recent years. Records from the European Court of Human Rights show that since 2004, there have been 36 claims of violations of Article 10 (right to freedom of expression) filed at the court by local journalists convicted of defamation in Russia.

The new law, which recriminalizes defamation in Russia, will undoubtedly be used to financially destroy the independent press: The penalty for defamation is up to 5 million rubles (more than US$150,000), which is a huge sum for the majority of Russian media, with the exception of state-owned outlets.

More important, the law allows for the reopening of old cases against journalists and human rights defenders, which were suspended or scrapped when President Dmitry Medvedev decriminalized defamation in November 2011.

Andrei Krasnenkov, the lawyer of Chechen strongman Ramzan Kadyrov, has already declared that his client intends to resume his defamation case against Oleg Orlov, a prominent human rights defender and the former boss of slain journalist Natalya Estemirova. The case was scrapped in January as a result of Medvedev's reform. (Orlov had publicly accused Kadyrov of involvement in Estemirova's murder.)

[Translated from Russian by Nina Ognianova]

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