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Gas Or Freedom?

Oleg Panfilov (file photo)
Oleg Panfilov (file photo)
Next week the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe is expected to choose a new representative on freedom of the media. Of the six nominees, two are considered to have the best chances: Mikhail Fedotov, the secretary of the Russian Union of Journalists and a coauthor of Russia’s surprisingly liberal mass media law (surprising because it has failed so spectacularly to protect freedom of the press) and Oleg Panfilov, director of the Moscow-based Center for Journalism in Extreme Situations and indefatigable monitor of media-rights violations throughout the former Soviet Union.

On the website “Yezhednevny zhurnal” today, National Circulation-Audit Service head Igor Yakovenko, himself a former Union of Journalists official and a former liberal Duma deputy, posted a nice commentary on the election that made several good points.

First, Yakovenko notes that the OSCE representative on freedom of the media is chosen by the governments whose abuse of media rights that representative should be exposing and condemning, rather than by the journalists he or she should be protecting. This fact means that Fedotov, who was nominated by Russia and who has made many compromises with power over the last 15 years or so, stands a good chance of being elected.

Surely Panfilov’s uncompromising monitoring of press-freedom abuses over the last decade or so is unlikely to win him any votes. As Yakovenko writes, “Those countries that his center monitors will, of course, vote against him.” So, we can count on countries like Belarus, Azerbaijan, Armenia, and all of Central Asia to join Russia in electing a toothless representative. Panfilov, incidentally, was nominated by Georgia, a country that has also been the target of some of his principled monitoring (in August 2008, RFE/RL interviewed Panfilov about media coverage of the Russia-Georgia war.)

Yakovenko notes that Fedotov’s main claim to fame, his coauthorship of the Russian media law, came 18 years ago and during that time, many in Russia have undergone “metamorphoses” straight out of Franz Kafka. More recently, Fedotov has been the Kremlin’s man:

On February 4 of this year, the United Nations held a hearing on the Russian government’s report on human rights in our country. The Russian government delegation made a point of bringing along Fedotov to defend the government’s point of view. Which he did, proclaiming from the podium all the guarantees of freedom of speech and journalists rights that exist in Russia and asserting that journalists can defend these rights in the courts. Dozens of murdered Russian journalists did not hear his words. Hundreds of thousands of his colleagues who are still alive did not learn about his statement, because NTV and other independent media have been closed down regardless of the low and without any judicial recourse. Many Russian human rights advocates who were present during this shame were convinced the Fedotov was talking about some other country.

It will be very interesting to see how the Western European countries vote (the OSCE has 56 member states). How many will see backing Moscow’s view on media freedom as a small compromise to make in order to secure a good gas deal or get a pipeline built? Especially since media freedom is, for the most part, not a problem in their countries with their own well-developed civil-society and legal mechanisms. If the Kazakh government doesn’t want a forceful media advocate, then why should France or Britain force one on them? (By the way, Kazakhstan will take over the rotating chairmanship of the OSCE in January.)

Yakovenko’s article is headlined “Europe’s Choice” in a clear reference to William Styron’s novel “Sophie’s Choice.” What will it be, Europe? Deals with Moscow or a chance to improve the lives of millions in the former Soviet Union?

-- Robert Coalson

About This Blog

The Power Vertical
The Power Vertical

The Power Vertical is a blog written especially for Russia wonks and obsessive Kremlin watchers by Brian Whitmore. It offers Brian's personal take on emerging and developing trends in Russian politics, shining a spotlight on the high-stakes power struggles, machinations, and clashing interests that shape Kremlin policy today. Check out The Power Vertical Facebook page or


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