Grigory Pasko: The Springtime Offensive

The Russian Power’s Springtime Offensive Grigory Pasko, journalist It is known that there is always a large number of policemen on the streets in Chita, where former heads of the YUKOS Oil Company Mikhail Khodorkovsky and Platon Lebedev are being held. And that on those days when the famous arrestees are driven to the oblast procuracy for familiarization with the criminal case materials, the streets of Chita are completely closed to traffic by officers of the road police, so that for a certain period all movement in the city literally comes to a complete stop. Like one local taxi driver told me, there is only one person besides Khodorkovsky who is driven around with such pomp and the creation of such hardships for everyone else – and that is president Putin. pressa.jpg Photo: Putin and Merkel – two leaders with two very different attitudes towards the press (from the Pasko archive) One local television company was able to capture this whole wild procedure on videotape: the shutting down of the streets of the city, the vehicles with the flashing lights, the police patrols and the security personnel around the procuracy… They say that one of Russia’s central television channels once even aired this video, having bought the story from the local television company. And, as I was told by some actual Chita television people (I won’t give their names here, for reasons that should be self-evident), that’s when the problems started. No, they weren’t shut down or locked up… They were threatened that if they ever again dared to address the topic of “Khodorkovsky behind bars”, they would lose their license. And so there you have it, an example of freedom of speech a la Putin. Why a la Putin? Because it is he who usually responds to questions about problems with freedom of speech in our country when he is abroad by saying that everything is in order with freedom of speech in Russia. And if someone expresses doubt about this, he snaps back by saying that you foreigners ought to take a better look at yourselves. The sub-text of such rhetoric, of course, is that you foreigners have plenty of problems of your own with free speech. I don’t know about what problems may exist out there, in Germany for example. I know many German journalists personally, and I have never heard them say that somebody had prohibited them from showing, filming, writing, or talking… And if Angela Merkel were to promise to circumcise some journalist, I’m sure she wouldn’t last very long in her job as Bundeskanzler. I know a thing or two from personal experience about what the Russian power can do to journalists: I was thrown in jail twice for my publications. Here’s another example of what the model of power built by Putin looks like: On the seventeenth day of a hunger strike by six inhabitants of Omsk Oblast, the Oblast government convened an emergency meeting of the editors of the local mass media. The editors were invited for a talk one by one. It was told to them that the topic of the hunger strike is a prohibited one in the region. And the editors were threatened with serious trouble. As was reported by «Novaya gazeta», in the meantime, on 11 April in Verkhny Karbush, more than forty of its inhabitants signed a letter addressed to Omsk Oblast governor Polezhayev, declaring that they were prepared at any moment to support the protesters with action. The villagers demand an immediate response from the power and a cessation of the poisoning of the hunger strike participants and of the persecution of their relatives. On that same day, the petition was passed on to the addressee. I am confident that the petition will remain without the highest-level reaction of the little regional tsar. And another example of “freedom of speech”. Very recently, the European Court of Human Rights agreed to hear an application by journalists from the Primorsky Kray newspaper, “Arsenievskiye vesti”. The editor of the publication, Irina Grebneva, and correspondent Nadezhda Alisimchik were found by a Primorsky court to be guilty of slandering the procurator of the Kray, Valery Vasilenko. The motive became a collage published in the paper in November 2003: it depicts a maiden of loose behavior, in whom the procurator identified himself. It turned out that I know all of the figurants in this case well: the «Arsenievskiye vesti» journalists, and Primorsky Kray procurator Valery Vasilenko, and the local Vladivostok courts… And I also remember the caricature of the “maiden of loose behavior”. From a legal point of view, there is no element of a crime in the actions of the journalists: caricature is a journalistic genre like any other. And drawing caricatures of public figures is permitted everywhere in the world where there is democracy. They say that French president De Gaulle used to get upset when he did NOT find caricatures of himself in the morning papers. By the way, with the coming of Putin to power, caricatures have disappeared as a genre from Russian newspapers and magazines. And the “Kukly” television show was also shut down: they say that Putin didn’t like it that they depicted him as a puppet. In the opinion of the secretary-general of the Union of Journalists of Russia, Igor Yakovenko, the European Court will support the Primorsky Kray journalists from «Aresnievskiye vesti» because in Europe, the courts are part of society and defenders of citizens. In Russia, the courts are part of the world of the government officials. Another example of an attack on freedom of speech: In Kaliningrad Oblast, they have arrested the founder/publisher and editor-in-chief of the newspaper “Novye kolesa”, deputy of the Oblast Duma Igor Rudnikov and the deputy’s assistant, a journalist of that same newspaper, Oleg Berezovsky. They are suspected of libel in the mass media, as well as of violence with respect to representatives of power (in the opinion of the procuracy, the two journalists had beaten up a group of policemen – 22 persons). As we can see, the power is stooping to out-and-out lies, just to shut up journalists it doesn’t want to have around. I’ve seen all kinds of journalists in my day, of course. And all kinds of policemen. But I still refuse to believe that two journalists could have beat up nearly two dozen policemen. Among April’s news reports there is also this one: The Union of Journalists of St. Petersburg has asked the city authorities to not allow unlawful actions on the part of the law enforcement organs with respect to journalists during a mass march by opponents of the current power. As it says in the request, “the union is deeply concerned by recorded incidents of violent actions with respect to employees of the press”. This appeal is not accidental: we know of numerous incidents when policemen beat up journalists merely because they happened to be present at various kinds of events that the authorities had not sanctioned. In so doing, the policemen had not infrequently smashed the photo cameras and video equipment of the journalists. These are the facts of the escalation of the offensive of the Russian power against freedom of speech. And after all that, Putin is still saying that everything is in order with freedom of speech in Russia?