MOSCOW, 17 February 2006 (RFE/RL) -- Volgograd acting Mayor Andrei Doronin told a news conference today that the closure of Volgograd-Inform, the city-owned publisher of "Gorodskiye vesti," was intended to prevent incitement of religious hatred and halt what he called "abuse of media freedom."
Sergei Vovchenko, a Unified Russia spokesman in Volgograd, told RFE/RL that the party decided to take action after receiving hundreds of calls complaining about the cartoon. He insisted that the party had no political motives for filing the complaint and was not responsible for the countrywide scandal it had triggered.
"Several parties and social organizations in Volgograd simply expressed doubts about this publication," Vovchenko said. "This is why a request was sent to the prosecutor's office. We simply wanted to make sure the legislation was being respected. No news sensation was created around this; others created it. We did not seek to stir up any scandal; on the contrary. On the second day of these events, on 10 February, a press conference about these events was canceled."
The federal prosecutor's office was quick to react to Unified Russia's complaint. Russian Deputy Prosecutor-General Nikolai Shepel said on 15 February that investigators had been sent from his office to Volgograd to determine whether the newspaper was guilty of inciting religious hatred. He said in televised remarks that free speech was no excuse for insulting the feeling of religious believers.
Call For Peace
"Gorodskiye vesti" published the cartoon on 9 February as an illustration to an article titled "Racists Have No Room In The Government." It shows Jesus Christ, Moses, Buddha, and Muhammad watching on television two groups of people about to engage in a fistfight. The caption, representing the thoughts of the assembled religious figures, reads: "We did not teach you that."
Recent weeks have seen violent demonstrations across the Arab and Muslim world to protest the recent publications in European newspapers of cartoons depicting the Prophet Muhammad. The drawings -- one of which represents Muhammad wearing a bomb-shaped turban -- were first published in Denmark in September.
The editor in chief of "Gorodskiye vesti," Tatyana Kaminskaya, said, however, the cartoon published in her newspaper was a call for peace and could not have caused offense. None of Volgograd's religious communities, she said, has complained about it.
Many observers have reacted with dismay at Unified Russia's denunciation of the cartoon and at the subsequent crackdown on "Gorodskiye vesti." Mikhail Melnikov, an analyst at the Center of Journalism in Extreme Situations in Moscow, sees nothing offensive in the cartoon -- on the contrary.
"What do they [prosecutors] want to investigate? I really don't know," Melnikov said. "The caption in this drawing is very noble: 'let's live in peace.' This drawing is not a caricature, it's a highly artistic work, and many agree with me on this. I think that the Unified Russia party is meddling. I don't see anything rational here, it is some kind of small-town fight for influence."
Igor Yakovenko, the deputy head of the Russian Union of Journalists, called the closure of the newspaper a "disgrace for Russia" and accused federal authorities of pressuring the Volgograd administration into shutting it down.
"The nature of the drawing is peaceful and positive," Kalachyov said. "All the rest is political insinuation, and it seems to me that the scandal has been whipped up out of nothing. In my opinion, people's feelings are much more insulted by things such as the control of documents on the basis of non-Slavic appearance. The publication could have gone totally unnoticed had Volgograd's Unified Russia not stirred up a scandal."
Kalachyov, however, said acting Mayor Doronin believed that the newspaper had to be shut down because it had acquired a "scandalous reputation."
So what might have prompted Unified Russia in Volgograd to whip up such a scandal? Some observers have suggested that the attack on "Gorodskiye vesti" may have been a result of infighting between the Volgograd branch of Unified Russia and the city administration, which owns the newspaper. .
But Andrei Serenko, a journalist based in Volgograd, dismissed this theory. According to him, relations between the party and the mayor's office, although once rocky, have recently been on the mend. Volgograd's Unified Russia, he said, simply hoped to boost its plummeting regional ratings.
"In Volgograd, this party has been very steadily losing popularity over the past year," Serenko said. "According to Volgograd's sociologists, who are constantly carrying out polls in the region, Unified Russia is consistently losing about 1 [percentage point] every month in Volgograd. So Unified Russia started whipping up this story which, in the eyes of its PR specialist, fitted in the information context: 'Now all the media are talking about this cartoon scandal [in Denmark], so let's create our own and advertise ourselves through this scandal.'"
Serenko, however, said the closure of the newspaper is likely to be a merely symbolic punishment, since "Gorodskiye vesti" had long been slated for reorganization. Volgograd-Inform was being liquidated and the newspaper was slated to close down before immediately reopening as a new juridical entity, owned as before by the city administration.
Serenko therefore predicted that the newspaper will soon reappear, although possibly under a different name.
If this is the case, then all parties will be winners. Unified Russia in Volgograd will have grabbed attention, religious groups possibly offended by the cartoon will have been appeased, and the editorial team of "Gorodskiye vesti" will continue working.
The scandal, however, will have made one victim. Tatyana Kaminskaya said she has already been told she will not be hired as editor in chief in the city administration's new daily.
A Volgograd resident reads the controversial issue of "Gorodskiye vesti" (TASS)
On 17 February, RFE/RL Russian Service correspondent Lyubov Chizhova spoke with Volgograd Deputy Mayor KONSTANTIN KALACHYOV, who confirmed that he will resign over the city's decision to close down "Gorodskiye vesti."
RFE/RL: Can you describe why "Gorodskiye vesti" is being shut down and how?
Konstantin Kalachyov: The decision [to close down "Gorodskiye vesti"] was made by acting Mayor Andrei Doronin. It can be explained like this: since the newspaper is the official organ of the city administration, it should publish statements by the city administration and the very format of the newspaper should emphasize respectability. However, recently the newspaper has acquired a scandalous reputation. [Doronin] didn't see any other way of ending the scandal around "Gorodskiye vesti" and settling the problem of its reputation except for liquidating it. A decision was made, according to which the municipal enterprise "Gorodskiye vesti" must be liquidated. During that time, a new municipal newspaper will be created that will be politically correct and will not create excitement.
RFE/RL: Was the cartoon really just an excuse to close the newspaper?
Kalachyov: The acting mayor has declined to give his opinion of the caricature itself. He is proceeding from the overall situation around the publication. The acting mayor has decided to dismiss the editor in chief.
RFE/RL: Earlier you said that you would resign if the editor was fired.
Kalachyov: I will. I will not change my mind.
RFE/RL: Does your resignation change your view of the situation?
Kalachyov: Speaking as someone who does not represent the city administration, I can say that, from my point of view, there is nothing offensive in the cartoon. In fact, it was clearly motivated by noble aims. A depiction of the Prophet Muhammad in a secular newspaper by a non-Muslim artist cannot be forbidden by anyone. In the final analysis, we must respect the rights of representatives of all confessions and atheists as well. And journalists too -- we must respect the freedom of the press. All of this is an artificially inflated scandal that, unfortunately, shows how far we are from tolerance and acceptance.
RFE/RL: What will become of the journalists who work for "Gorodskiye vesti"?
Kalachyov: Up until now, I had been saying that I would do everything I could to see that the journalists did not suffer and that all of them were taken into the staff of the new newspaper. Now I can't say anything concrete. My position is very simple -- the crime does not correspond with the scale of the punishment. I am against any repressions directed against the newspaper's staff.
RFE/RL: Has the newspaper had problems with the city administration before?
Kalachyov: I personally hired the editor in chief and asked her to make the newspaper popular in the city. The paper's circulation -- 10,000 -- was, I thought, inadequate. Until recently, the newspaper was rather dull and very official.
On 17 February, RFE/RL Russian Service correspondent Lyubov Chizhova spoke with IGOR YAKOVENKO, general secretary of the Russian Union of Journalists. Yakovenko said that the decision to close "Gorodskiye vesti" had nothing to do with the global furor over cartoons depicting the Prophet Muhammad.
RFE/RL: What is behind the decision to close "Gorodskiye vesti"?
Igor Yakovenko: You see, there was unprecedented pressure from the federal authorities. There was the completely scandalous statement by several leaders of the Russian parliament who claimed the religious sensibilities of believers -- including their own religious sensibilities -- were offended by what had been published in the Volgograd newspaper. But not one believer -- not one Muslim, not one person in Volgograd Oblast said their sensibilities had been offended. However, the prosecutor-general was terribly offended. [First Deputy Duma Speaker Lyubov] Sliska was offended. [Mediasoyuz Vice President and Public Chamber member Yelena] Zelinskaya was very offended. That is, we have some very sensitive believers with very sensitive and easily wounded feelings -- in the Prosecutor-General's Office and in the State Duma. Religious people looked at the situation with sympathy, with understanding, said there was nothing wrong with the cartoon. What is happening now shames Russia. It is a universal shame for Russia, since not a single European government has reacted as shamefully as the Russian authorities have. Not a single European government has taken any repressive measures against the press because they perfectly well understand that there is no direct connection between the hysteria we've seen in many countries around the world and cartoons or the Volgograd caricature. [Acting Chechen Prime Minister] Ramzan Kadyrov doesn't read Danish newspapers and he hasn't seen this cartoon. There is no connection, no believers' feelings have been hurt. This is entirely on the political level.
RFE/RL: Are you going to do anything in defense of "Gorodskyie vesti"?
Yakovenko: Of course. It is very difficult to do anything because it is a state newspaper. The city administration, which came under pressure from the presidential administration and the Prosecutor-General's Office, simply liquidated a newspaper that it owned. We, of course, will do everything we can to get the editor in chief reinstated. If we have to, we'll find work for the editor and for that artist who drew the cartoon. But, unfortunately, we are talking about the state press and the state has dealt with it in the way it considered necessary. It is a completely obscene story. We are trying to do what we can to defend the journalists. And, of course, we will do everything to block any stupid laws restricting freedom of speech because -- in reality -- there are two constitutional principles at stake here: the secular nature of our state and freedom of the press. No one is inflaming anything. It is just that some politicians consider it important to restrict the press, while others think it is important to collect some political capital for themselves out of this whole story.