It is too easy to become cynical when hearing the all-too-frequent reports of harassment of Russian authorities against respected voices in the professional media and activists in the human-rights community. Among some western observers, there is also a certain embarrassment about publicising this trend - for the Kremlin is all-too-skilful in caricaturing external criticism as "anti-Russian propaganda" in order to cultivate the sense (so palpable in Moscow these days) that Russia is a besieged fortress.
That these reactions are misplaced is illustrated by two recent cases that demand careful attention. Each involves a widely respected and valued organisation, with an exceptionally determined and brave woman at its centre.
The most recent case was highlighted on 8 May by the International Helsinki Federation for Human Rights, when it said that Russian authorities are seeking to disbar lawyer Karina Moskalenko. Russian prosecutors have requested that Moskalenko be disbarred on grounds that she violated professional-ethics rules, failed to adequately assist a client and obstructed investigations, the Associated Press reported.
Floriana Fossato has extensive experience as a journalist and media critic. She is currently working on a PhD on Russian regional television at University College London
The lawyer is the director of a non-governmental organisation, the Centre for International Protection, which has brought dozens of rights cases to the European Court of Human Rights. More than twenty of these cases have resulted in rulings against Russia. During the last few years the Centre for International Protection has faced a tax audit, unfavourable tax rulings and other administrative inspections.
Moskalenko, incidentally, is one of the lawyers of jailed oil tycoon Mikhail Khodorkovsky. She also defended former chess champion Garry Kasparov after he was detained during a protest in Moscow on 14 April 2007. Kasparov is currently one of the leaders of the opposition to the Kremlin.
Aaron Rhodes, the director of the International Helsinki Federation for Human Rights, says that the effort to disbar Moskalenko "is an apparent attempt at discrediting and punishing her for her work on politically inconvenient cases and at establishing an example for other lawyers in this field." Rhodes notes that the centre and Moskalenko in the first place "have done a service to Russian society by assisting citizens to seek and obtain remedy for human rights violations, and deserve recognition, not persecution."
The International Helsinki Federation says the request to disbar Moskalenko will be heard by a Moscow City Bar committee either later in May or in June 2007, but no firm date has been announced.
A generation's work
Meanwhile, the Golovisnkii regional court in Moscow has now failed twice to hold hearings into the case of the Educated Media Foundation; the EMF is the legal successor of Internews Russia, a non-commercial organisation that since 1992 has supported the emergence of television companies working according to standards of professional journalism and ethical business.
The hearing did not take place because the representatives of the department of economic security of Russia's interior ministry did not show up in court.
Educated Media Foundation lawyers said that officials should have brought to the court documents on the basis of which fourteen officers from that department on 18 April had searched the premises of the organisation for eleven hours, and as a result had confiscated the organisation's financial documentation as well as all of its computer servers, including the servers of its website. The list of documents confiscated was seventy pages long. Following the raid the EMF has been forced to suspend - possibly for good - all its activities.
After the abortive hearing, a new date was set for the consideration of the complaint brought by the Educated Media Foundation regarding the seizure: 10 May.
Manana Aslamazyan, EMF president, says that police authorities are linking the April raid to an incident in January 2007, when she and an Internews International employee who is a British national were stopped at Moscow's Sheremetyevo airport for failing to fill out a declaration form for €9,550 and €10,000 respectively. These sums exceed the amount (the equivalent of $10,000) individuals are permitted to bring into Russia without a declaration.
This infraction is usually qualified by customs authorities as and administrative violation, dealt with by a fine. It is unclear how it could be considered grounds for the opening of a criminal prosecution and escalate to a point that compels the economic-security department to investigate the whole organisation.
Aslamazyan's example is in a way quite close to Moskalenko's. Each is an attempt to discredit a renowned professional and thereby to set a precedent for others in their respective fields; each links the main figures involved to the organisation she has created, punishing it for its successful activities.
The treatment of Aslamazyan and of the Educated Media Foundation is also extremely important for thousands of journalists across Russia, because in nearly fifteen years of activity EDM/Internews Russia has trained more than 15,000 journalists, producers, business managers at all levels, web designers and media lawyers on issues such as marketing and advertising sales, television design, media management, and business planning.
One of Russia's best television companies, TV2, located in the Siberian city of Tomsk, has posted an open letter to President Putin in support of the Educated Media Foundation and acknowledging Aslamazyan's huge personal contributions. Within a few days more than 2,000 Russian media professionals had signed the petition (see here and here for English translation).
Also in openDemocracy on Russian civil society and media under pressure:
Tanya Lokshina, "Russian civil society: the G8 and after"
(19 July 2006)
Anna Politkovskaya, "Chechnya: Russia's shame"
(9 October 2006)
Shaun Walker, "Anna Politkovskaya: death of a professional"
(9 October 2006)
Tanya Lokshina, "Putin, Chechnya
(12 October 2006)
Ivan Krastev, "'Sovereign democracy', Russian-style"
(16 November 2006)
Zygmunt Dzieciolowski, "New Russia, old Russia"
(5 April 2007)
Oksana Chelysheva, "Russia's iceberg: a Nizhny Novgorod report"
(25 April 2007)
Tanya Lokshina, "Russian civil society: an appeal to Europe"
(30 April 2007)
The freedom of distance
Non-Russians often labour under the impression that the Russian Federation has only a limited amount of Moscow-based television stations under strict Kremlin control. The situation, however, is much more nuanced. Besides seventeen federal television channels some 1,500 companies do actually exist and broadcast to local audiences over eleven time-zones across Russia. Half of them produce local news, entertainment and documentary programmes.
Federal channels mirror distant realities, and many Russians consider them to an extent a form of "exotic" entertainment. Meanwhile, they depend on their own, local stations for information about events taking place in their area. A 2005 study by Russia's measurement agency, TSN Gallup, confirms that the regional public largely disregards federal channels and networks on matters concerning information, while relying for news and analytical programmes mainly on regional broadcasters.
Such a situation attracts advertisers and creates economic opportunities for the better-established television companies in medium regional urban markets, as well as job opportunities for professionals in the regional media industry. It is here that the role of EMF/Internews Russia as a tireless promoter of professionalism in all the aspects of broadcasting has been crucial. Over the fifteen years that EMF/Internews Russia has worked with regional television, the financial strength of the industry has increased phenomenally and well established regional companies have emerged.
Since 1998 it has organised dozens of competitions, conferences and seminars, bringing together journalists from all over the country and creating precious professional exchange networks. At the competitions, regional state and independent companies were assessed on an equal footing. Top journalists and managers of powerful Moscow-based channels took part in EMF/Internews events as participants and as trainers.
The Logic of Success management conference, started in 2002, has become a regular annual industry event at which top Russian regional TV managers and industry experts examine strategies for maximising business effectiveness. Hundreds of television stations have participated in social-media campaigns supporting elderly people, HIV/Aids prevention, orphans and a healthy lifestyle in a country with huge problems due to alcohol consumption.
For the last three years the all-Russian contest Time to Act, which Internews Russia started in 2003, was conducted under the aegis of the presidential Civil Society Institutions and Human Rights Council (CHIHRC), chaired by Ella Pamfilova. Internews Russia, and Manana Aslamazyan personally, were at the heart of the creation of Russia's National Association of Television and Radio Broadcasters and of other important industry bodies. In 2005 the success of Internews Russia's work in discovering regional talent led in 2005 to the creation of the prestigious Tefi award (awarded to the winner of a special Tefi-Region contest for regional television professionals).
The web servers confiscated on 18 April hosted a number of precious resources for the Russian media community, including the only comprehensive and up-to-date atlas of TV and radio, and a video-exchange programme, Provintsiya, used by television stations to get access to broadcasts produced by their regional colleagues. More than 400 companies in Russia and in former Soviet republics improved their newsroom efficiency using unique Internews-created software, News Factory, for their broadcasts. Many regularly submitted the transcripts of these broadcasts to Inter-Novosti, an internet-based information agency, which gave regional companies same-day access to news from across Russia.
Ella Pamfilova, chair of the CHIHRC, told Ekho Moskvy radio station on 6 May that the activities of the EMF for regional journalists have been extremely useful, while advancing the hypothesis that some overzealous officials may have found it inconvenient. Pamfilova said she would bring the case to Vladimir Putin's attention, "in order to avoid the possibility that somebody, on the basis of an entirely fabricated case could be promoted, while destroying an organisation so precious for the country."
Internews International and Internews Network have released statements and several media outlets have published articles about the situation. Russia's main financial daily, Vedomosti, wrote in an editorial published on World Press Freedom Day (3 May 2007) that, with this case, "foreign non-governmental organisations such as Freedom House and Reporters without Borders were given yet another piece of evidence for lowering Russia's press freedom rating."
Will this important show of support within Russia be enough? The court hearing on 10 May was inconclusive. The story continues.