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Media Matters: October 19, 2007

Russian Journalist Remembered For Seeking Truth, Challenging Authority

By Heather Maher

Garry Kasparov described Politkovskaya as someone who only had respect for the truth

WASHINGTON, October 11, 2007 (RFE/RL) -- A joint event by RFE/RL and the Congressional Human Rights Caucus on October 10 commemorated the first anniversary of the death of Russian journalist Anna Politkovskaya.

In opening the conference, Representative Tom Lantos (Democrat, California) described Politkovskaya as the victim of a government that has turned away from democracy and is embracing authoritarianism. Lantos described Politkovskaya as "one of most remarkable women I have ever had the pleasure and the honor of meeting."

"This extraordinary human being was gunned down in her own apartment house, one of the many victims of an increasingly authoritarian government," Lantos added.
"This extraordinary human being was gunned down in her own apartment house, one of the many victims of an increasingly authoritarian government." -- Lantos

Politkovskaya was an investigative journalist who covered human-rights issues -- especially the war in Chechnya -- and was a frequent critic of the Russian government. She was shot dead in her Moscow apartment building on October 7, 2006. Law-enforcement authorities in Russia say they are investigating Politkovskaya's murder.

According to the Committee to Protect Journalists, 17 journalists have been killed since Vladimir Putin became president, and only one case has been solved.

Lantos, a native of Hungary who chairs the House Committee on Foreign Affairs, called Politkovskaya "a passionate fighter for freedom who loved Russia" and was fighting for a free and open society.

'Authority, Truth Never Found In Same Place'

The remembrance event's keynote speaker was Garry Kasparov, a leading opposition figure in Russia who has declared his intention to run for president in the March 2008 election. He remembered Politkovskaya as a journalist who stood up to authority and pursued the truth no matter the cost.

"She was always challenging people," he said. "And she challenged her critics to refute the proof she collected, she challenged her supporters and collaborators to live up to her high standards of hard work and moral authority. And most of all, she challenged authority. She had no respect for authority, only for the truth. And as Anna proved so many times, in Russia today authority and truth are never found in the same place."

Kasparov described a recent effort to mount a marble plaque on the building where Politkovskaya was killed, as a small but symbolic way to honor her memory. Moscow city authorities denied the request but members of the opposition group Kasparov leads, Other Russia, put the plaque up anyway. He also noted that October 7 was both the anniversary of the journalist's killing and the birthday of Russian President Vladimir Putin. Only Putin's birthday was mentioned in the press.

"On October 7, we remember a day of tragic coincidences. None of us believe it was an accident of fate," Kasparov said. "Across Russia, the state propaganda machine was celebrating the birthday of Vladimir Putin and ignoring the anniversary of Anna's murder. We all must do whatever we can to reverse this horrific state of affairs. Only when the Russian state acknowledges this murder and ignores this birthday will we be able to say things have been put right."

Putin's 'Corporate Apparatus' Not Democracy

Kasparov is an outspoken critic of Putin and the current Russian government, which he says is consolidating power in the hands of state-appointed oligarchs, suppressing civil society, banning opposition, and repressing independent media.

"The facts are that the Russian government is increasingly irrelevant to Putin and his chosen few," Kasparov said. "So the state apparatus has been subverted to serve a corporate apparatus. And this apparatus operates above the law and behind the scenes."
"The facts are that the Russian government is increasingly irrelevant to Putin and his chosen few." -- Kasparov

Russia is no longer a democracy, Kasparov said, yet Putin is still treated as a democratic leader. He urged the member of the Group of Seven leading industrialized countries to stop supporting Putin, saying that every time he is treated as an equal, he is given more moral authority to continue reversing democracy.

"Today we have an awkward situation, when Putin acts like [Belarusian President Alyaksandr] Lukashenka or [Zimbabwean President Robert] Mugabe, but is treated as one of the members of the exclusive democratic club," he said. "Russia today does not qualify by any democratic standards."

Russian Elections Not Real

General elections in Russia are scheduled for December 2, and the presidential election is set for next March. But Kasparov warned against using certain words to describe those events because they have lost their meaning.

"I ask you to be very cautious in using words [like] elections, running for office, and all other elements -- political terms for democracy, while speaking of Russia," Kasparov said. "Because it's all fake. In Russia we are not fighting to win elections, we're fighting to have elections."

Kasparov has been fighting to register his party for parliamentary elections, but as he was speaking in Washington, media in Moscow was reporting that the Central Election Commission has refused to register the candidate list submitted by Other Russia.

Stories of Russian authoritarianism were echoed by other speakers at the Washington event. Larisa Arap, an opposition activist and member of the United Civic Front, was forcibly kept in a Russian psychiatric hospital for 46 days this summer after she wrote and spoke publicly about child abuse in state psychiatric hospitals. She said the trend in Russia these days is to punish people who confront authority, as in Soviet times:

"Nowadays, just like in the times of the Soviet Union, Russia is practicing punitive psychiatry. It is used against those who are in disagreement with the acting authority," Arap said. "Punitive psychiatry is yet another way of combating political opposition. If you criticize the authorities, you have a chance of finding yourself in jail, or in the psychiatric ward. You may be severely beaten up or murdered, just like Anna Politkovskaya. Regardless of these repressions against us, we will persevere and continue our struggle and our work."

Arap's struggle will be harder from now on -- she was beaten so badly when she was taken to the hospital that her spine was damaged.

Another panelist, David Satter of the Washington-based Hudson Institute who is a former Moscow correspondent for the "Financial Times," said the group of powerful oligarchs who run Russia has abandoned all pretense of appropriateness and is "losing its fear of the civilized world."

Media Watchdog Paints Grim Picture Of CIS Press Freedoms

The report found that journalists in Russia -- like Anna Politkovskaya, murdered in October 2006 -- continue to be targets of violence

October 16, 2007 (RFE/RL) -- In its annual Worldwide Press Freedom Index, the media rights group Reporters Without Borders (RSF) has again given the countries of the former Soviet Union a poor report card.

Belarus, Russia, and Uzbekistan all received poor rankings, while Turkmenistan again placed alongside Eritrea and North Korea among the world's worst three countries for press freedoms.

Elsa Vidal of RSF’s European and post-Soviet countries desk told RFE/RL that Turkmenistan remains at the bottom of the list because fundamental democratic changes have not yet taken place there, despite hopes of liberalization following the death of President Saparmurat Niyazov in December 2006. Although some improvements have been noted, such as the opening of Internet cafes, Vidal said it is too early to tell whether predictions of improvements in Turkmenistan's rights situation will be borne out.

The World Press Freedom Index condemned Uzbekistan, ranked 160th on its list, for its continued imprisonment of journalists and human rights activists. Vidal noted cases of journalists forced to leave the country, and others who were released from jail only after renouncing their former activities and colleagues.

The report also cited Belarus, ranked 151st, as a major violator of media rights. Vidal noted the recent cases of opposition members and independent journalists who were detained to prevent them from taking part in, or reporting on, an opposition march held on October 14.

In Russia, Vidal said, "We have witnessed widespread violence targeting journalists, and actually impunity for those who take journalists as their targets." Moreover, "there is no possibility for the opposition to access national TV and national radio, except on Ekho Moskvy," which reaches only part of the population. Those factors account for Russia's ranking at 144th place, she said.

Meanwhile, the government of Azerbaijan has ceased cooperating with Reporters Without Borders, refusing to respond to the organization's questions, according to Vidal. "We are still asking for an explanation of the seven journalists who are still kept in jail, with false accusations against some of them just because they wrote articles that did not please the authorities," she said.

Elsewhere in the Caucasus, however, both Armenia and Georgia received improved rankings for making some progress in access to public information.

The RSF report notes an increase in online censorship, with bloggers in particular being targeted, stating that Internet activity is no longer ignored by repressive governments. China was censured for imprisoning at least 50 people for their online writings, while Vietnam and Egypt were also listed as cracking down on Internet dissent.

(Read the full text of RSF's Worldwide Press Freedom Index)

In Dramatic Shift, Turkmen Website Allows Readers To Post Comments

An Internet cafe in Ashgabat (file photo)

October 11, 2007 (RFE/RL) -- The Turkmen government's official website recently added a new feature that allows readers to post comments to articles. The new feature appears to be a major change in a country where the government strictly controls all media and public dissent is not allowed.

The website, Altyn Asyr (The Golden Age), which was launched about two years ago in Russian, features articles about the national and local governments and the meetings and foreign trips made by President Gurbanguly Berdymukhammedov.

The press freedom group Reporters Without Borders (RSF) welcomed the development.

"At first, it's a great surprise, and we are pretty much astonished by this news because there had been such pressure on information in Turkmenistan and especially on the Internet, that it's a very good sign," Elsa Vidal, the head of RSF's Eurasia Desk, told RFE/RL. "But nevertheless, it is too early to say whether this sign will lead to a bigger liberalization of information in Turkmenistan. We very deeply hope that it will and that President Berdymukhammedov will commence his reform of the country."

The website recently began offering news in Turkmen and English, as well. The move to allow comments to be posted coincides with a trip to Turkmenistan by EU foreign policy chief Javier Solana.

In February, shortly after Berdymukhammedov was inaugurated, the first two Internet cafes in Turkmenistan were opened in the capital, Ashgabat. But Vidal says those are not as free as they are in most other countries. She says you must register your identity and that there are filters on the web browsers that prevents many websites from being accessed by the user.

"These are, nevertheless, big changes [with the Internet] compared with [President Saparmurat] Niyazov's era," she says.

At Russian Extremism Trial, A Search For 'Extremism'

By Chloe Arnold

Andrei Piontkovsky (file photo)

MOSCOW, September 25, 2007 (RFE/RL) -- Tempers flared in Courtroom 38 at the Basmanny Court in central Moscow today, as prosecution and defense grappled with one thorny issue: what constitutes extremism, and where exactly can it be found in the pages of Andrei Piontkovsky's "Unloved Country," a collection of political essays critical of the Kremlin?

Piontkovsky, an active member of the opposition Yabloko party and a commentator for RFE/RL's Russian Service, looked by turns frustrated, angry, and exhausted as the prosecution presented its case. His main concern was that an investigation into the book had failed to pinpoint a single phrase or paragraph that could be arguably labeled as extremist.

At one point in the proceedings, he jumped up from his chair and flung a copy of his book at the prosecution, saying that if he faces as much as 15 years in jail, he deserves to know why.

"Pick up the book and show us the passages which contain these so-called terrible crimes that you have described in your report!" he said. "Be so kind as to do this, please. We would like to know what we need to defend ourselves against."

But the lawyer from the prosecutor's office rejected the offer, and five hours after the hearing began, it adjourned with no one any closer to finding out if and where extremist content could be found in Piontkovsky's writings.

What Is 'Extremism'?

Speaking at the trial, Aleksandr Kudrinsky, the head of Russian literature at the Russian State Philological Institute, criticized the prosecution's written allegations as vague and misleading. "I quote: 'The book contains appeals for some kind of hostile or violent acts, propaganda that undermines some or other nationalities.' I can only compare this to, say, a report on someone's death saying that he died from some kind of injuries," Kudrinsky said.

In lieu of a verdict, the judge, Svetlana Klimova, recommended a second investigation into the book's alleged extremist content -- this time by a panel of experts at the Ministry of Justice. She asked them to answer the following question: "Does Andrei Piontkovsky's book ‘Unloved Country' contain appeals to start a rebellion, or incite social, racial, national, or religious hatred, or propaganda that alludes to the superiority of one social group, race, nationality, or religion over others?"

Piontkovsky and his lawyers had asked for an independent panel of experts from Moscow's State University to carry out a second probe, fearing the Justice Ministry's report would not be independent.

"I very much hope that the experts will carry out an objective investigation," Roman Karpinsky, one of Piontkovsky's lawyers, said. "The fact that the court rejected the experts who we suggested should sit on the panel alarms me somewhat. But I do sincerely hope that the investigation will be objective."

Piontkovsky is the first person to be tried under Russia's new antiextremism legislation, brought in just months before parliamentary elections in December and a presidential vote next year.

Critics of the law say the new law will restrict the movements of opposition parties and their supporters in the run-up to the elections.