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Analysis & Opinion
21.01.10 Hacks VS Coppers
By Tom Balmforth

After a RIA Novosti photographer was yesterday charged with participating in an unsanctioned demonstration that he said he was covering, almost thirty chief editors from Russia’s top media outlets rushed to his support. They appealed the ruling in an open letter to the interior minister, condemning the case as “unjust.” In a country where last year three journalists were murdered, public and media outcry over the harassment of journalists is fairly routine. But this time leading the pack is state-owned RIA Novosti. Is Russia’s largely state-controlled media now trying to stand up more for basic press freedoms?

On December 12, RIA Novosti photographer Andrei Stenin was arrested for taking part in the demonstration outside a presidential administration building near Kropotkinskaya metro in central Moscow. Yesterday, a Moscow court found him guilty and ordered him to pay a fine of 500 rubles (less than $17).

The case has sent shockwaves through the Russian media. Twenty-eight chief editors of prominent Russian news organizations, including several state-owned ones, have signed an open letter to Interior Minister Rashid Nurgaliev vehemently contesting the court’s decision, saying Stenin had only been covering the rally on an assignment, and explicitly accusing the arresting officers of falsifying their reports.

A Russian website, Grani.ru, has published a video, which although short, clearly depicts the photographer holding only a camera and taking pictures of the 21 demonstrators, who are standing in a row, holding A4 sheets of paper, spelling out the phrase “observe the constitution.”

According to RIA Novosti, which includes Russia Profile, the court chose to ignore testimony from Maria Vashchuk, the agency’s deputy chief editor of Visual Information and Stenin’s boss, that he had been assigned to cover the demonstration. Instead, the letter writers claim, the court chose to listen to police reports that had basic inconsistencies. The surnames of key witnesses (also police officers) were for instance omitted on the copy of the official police report that Stenin was given after his arrest, RIA Novosti reported.

“Numerous facts in the Stenin case attest to the fact that the arrest report was carried out in breach of procedural legislation, the finishing touches were then added in the Kitai-Gorod police station, and in particular the testimony of the witnessing police officers was falsified,” the letter said.

RIA Novosti’s spokesman Alexander Babinsky called it “unique, astonishing and utterly absurd… that a journalist, carrying out his work completely legally, was summoned to an administrative hearing for having taken part in an unsanctioned demonstration.” “Of course, this is not the first time that journalists have been arrested for ‘taking part in unsanctioned demonstrations,’ but I do not remember a time when a journalist was actually found guilty for it,” Babinsky added.

But Masha Lipman, a political analyst at the Carnegie Moscow Center, said it was unusual that the particular case has generated so much attention, given the long-standing poor climate for journalists in Russia. With three journalists murdered in the country in 2009, Russia was the fifth most dangerous place in the world to be a journalist according to the Committee for the Protection of Journalists. And Russia was ranked 153rd out of 175 countries for press freedom, according to a Reporters Without Borders survey based on journalists’ reports of direct physical harassment as well as indirect pressure.

“It is interesting that there have been so many encroachments on press freedoms in Russia over the past years, and this is the first time when such prominent media figures have joined in signing a letter,” said Lipman. “I think it may have something to do with the fact that the Interior Ministry has been so prominently exposed lately as a mismanaged agency, whose employees commonly commit crimes instead of enforcing order,” she said.
Falsified police testimonies are not just a problem for journalists – “they can happen to any Russian citizen,” the letter-writers pointed out, focusing their attention straight back at Nurgaliyev’s embattled ministry, which has recently lurched from one scandal to another.

The latest scandal broke yesterday, when a journalist died from injuries sustained in police custody when he was detained for drunkenness in the west Siberian city of Tomsk on January 4. He had been so badly beaten that he spent the last two weeks of his life in a coma. A police officer was promptly charged with the crime. The most infamous recent police scandal took place in April last year when an inebriated police officer, Major Denis Yevsurkov, walked into a south Moscow supermarket and opened fire, killing two people and injuring a further six.

“Obviously, I think it’s high time that the government paid attention to the poor performance, mismanagement and corruption of the Interior Ministry,” said Lipman. And there are signs it is. Russian President Dmitry Medvedev announced far-reaching reform toward the end of last year, involving the blanket dismissal of a large proportion of its staff. “We often have a problem in Russia that good plans and initiatives do not get implemented the way they were conceived – the system is corrupt and highly bureaucratic,” she said.

But asked whether Medvedev’s proposed reform would have any effect, Lipman said it was a question of being patient and waiting for results. “The intention is there and it is good. This time it is not mere rhetoric. Many of Medvedev’s initiatives can be dismissed as mere rhetoric. But this time we seem to be really talking about reform. Still, let’s just wait until we see the result,” she said.

But the harassment of journalists in Russia is not a recent revelation – so why has this open letter appeared now, and does it mean Russia’s press will defend itself more vigorously? “Well, on the one hand, I think this is a good move – a journalist was mistreated by the police, which is a clear encroachment on press freedom and the media has stood up against it,” said Lipman. But she cautioned that it could just be an example of the Russian habit of intensive but temporary media “campaigns” against particular problems or agencies. “We had this a couple of years ago with military hazing, which all began because of a horrible instance of torture in the army,” said Lipman. “Should we assume that hazing is no longer a problem? No, probably it still is – we just don’t hear about it.” Similarly, the current campaign against the Interior Ministry was sparked by the Yevsurkov supermarket shootings, she said.
“But even if this is just a one off, it is still good as a precedent, with very important figures standing up to defend press freedom. It’s just that, beyond that, it could be suggested that it’s not that simple - not the only motive,” said Lipman.
The source
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