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Moscow University Cancels Student Talk Show After It Invites Opposition Activist

It seems that giving airtime to Lyubov Sobol, a lawyer with opposition leader Aleksei Navalny's Anti-Corruption Foundation, was a bit too much to the point.
It seems that giving airtime to Lyubov Sobol, a lawyer with opposition leader Aleksei Navalny's Anti-Corruption Foundation, was a bit too much to the point.

MOSCOW -- Moscow's Higher School of Economics (HSE) has canceled a popular student talk show the day before a prominent opposition activist was due to appear. Students allege the decision came from the rector's office, and fear the popular show may be shut down for good.

The news emerged when Lyubov Sobol, a lawyer with opposition leader Aleksei Navalny's Anti-Corruption Foundation, announced on Twitter that she had received a call from one of the producers and was told that her appearance on the show, which was slated to air on May 30, had been canceled.

"I was invited on tomorrow's talk show," she wrote. "Today they tell me: 'The university leadership unexpectedly shut our project down yesterday.'"

Sergei Korzun, a professor at the school's Faculty of Communication, Media and Design who oversees the program, appeared to confirm the news, telling online news outlet MBKh Media that the show was being closed until the end of the academic year. He denied it had anything to do with Sobol's planned appearance, however.

"It seems someone got confused," he said. "It came time to end the project because the exam period has begun."

Korzun's secretary said the professor was not immediately available for comment.

Maria Zakharova appears on the show in October 2018.
Maria Zakharova appears on the show in October 2018.

The show, titled To The Point! Personage, has been going since 2016, and routinely racks up several thousand views on YouTube. Episodes have featured well-known public figures from various political camps, including Foreign Ministry spokeswoman Maria Zakharova, opposition politician Dmitry Gudkov, and veteran journalist Vladimir Pozner. Students apply for a chance to participate in the project and gain extra credits in return.

According to the outlet Mediazona, which published an investigation into the ongoing scandal surrounding Sobol's appearance, the show had initially embraced an open and transparent approach, and imposed few restrictions on the aspiring journalists who produced it.

"Korzun would clearly say that we can invite anyone," Anton Khnkoyan, a former participant, told the outlet. "It was straightforward, honest and open, and there were no problems on that front largely because the faculty did not interfere in the show. A specific professor was involved and he caused no problems," he added of Korzun.

There have been previous allegations of censorship, however.

In March 2018, the show made headlines after Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov requested that an episode featuring his discussion with HSE students be taken offline. In recordings subsequently published by the BBC's Russian service, Peskov cast accusations of harassment against Russian lawmaker Leonid Slutsky in light of the Harvey Weinstein affair in the United States, comparing Hollywood actresses who had come out against the American movie mogul to prostitutes.

In February 2019, Korzun allegedly canceled an upcoming appearance by Yelena Panfilova, the founder and former director of Transparency International Russia. According to a current participant in the talk-show project, who gave comments to Mediazona on condition of anonymity, Korzun gathered together the students involved in the show's production shortly before shooting was due to take place and told them Panfilova's appearance was being called off because "the [university] leadership made it clear the episode will not take place."

Commenting on the latest scandal on May 30, HSE rector Yaroslav Kuzminov said that "the university has issued no official invitation to Lyubov Sobol, nor planned to issue one." He added: "I hope the academic talk show will continue. We'll find a solution for sure."

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    Matthew Luxmoore

    Matthew Luxmoore is a Moscow-based journalist covering Russia and the former Soviet Union. He has reported for The New York Times in Moscow and has written for The Guardian, Politico, The New Republic, and Foreign Policy. He’s a graduate of Harvard’s Davis Center and a recipient of New York University's Reporting Award and the Fulbright Alistair Cooke Journalism Award.

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