We were so appalled by the following item from the Russian press that we have taken the time to translate it and held our editorials from this issue, allowing this revolting material to speak for itself. No further words from our editorial board are necessary. This is truly an epic new low in the sordid history of the Russian nation.
500 Ruble’s Worth of Shame
January 21, 2010
by Ekaterina Butorina
Translated from the Russian by LR Staff
The Municipal Court of the Tver district of Moscow yesterday set a precedent fraught with serious potential for Russian authorities to impose a new wave of crackdowns on civil liberties. According to the decision, journalists who attend unauthorized opposition political rallies in order to report on what transpires can be treated as if they were participants in the demonstration itself, and therefore as criminals subject to prosecution just like the “perpetrators.”
The first to be accused of such “wrongdoing” RIA Novosti’s photojournalist Andrei Stenin. On January 20th, a magistrate found him guilty under Art. 20.2 of the Municipal Administrative Code of participating in an unsanctioned demonstration, held in mid-December last year in front of the presidential administration building, and fined him 500 rubles. The Director of RIA Novosti called the incident “a dangerous precedent” and expressed his intention not only to appeal yesterday’s “global solution” but also to bring to the incident to the attention of business leaders and journalistic colleagues.
The head of Department Internal Affairs’ Moscow Division, Vladimir Kolokoltchev, stated that “law abiding citizens have nothing to fear when participating in rallies as police officers act against them in strict accordance with the law.” Tell that to Stenin, who was acting in accordance with the Constitution and the Law on Mass Media and who as a result was arrested and convicted as a direct result of police action.
The record indicates that Kolokoltchev’s confidence in the fastidious application of the law is misplaced in regard to non-journalists as well. We reported, for example, back in December 2008 [Russian link] about the case of Artem Buzenkkov, a blind student who, on his way to a theater, stepped out of the subway station Mayakovskaya and found himself caught up accidentally in a Dissenter’s March demonstration, which law enforcement authorities actively dispersed as a riot. Buzenkov was likewise convicted of participating in an unsanctioned demonstration and fined 500 rubles. Only on appeal was Buzenkov ultimately vindicated.
The events leading to Stenin’s arrest and conviction involved a group of about 20 people assembling under the windows of the presidential administration building on Ancient Square. Each held a standard-sized sheet of paper bearing a single letter and spelling out the phrase: “Respect the Constitution!” They chanted that same slogan, and some held aloft the banner of the Solidarity opposition organization. “I attended to shoot the events, and could not make out the inscription from afar, so I moved in closer to capture the lettering clearly,” relates Stenin. “When the law enforcement officials charged in and began grabbing people, it was not clear at first who they were as they were from special services, and everyone fled the scene and so did I. They didn’t notice me at first and then when I was spotted they tried to rip my camera away from me, but I clutched it close to my body and they drove me to my knees and held me for the police van.” Stenin showed his press credentials but the officers ignored them and confiscated all his equipment.
Although the court was allowed two months to render its decision, Judge Natalia Krivensevoi required only two weeks despite the defendant’s not-guilty plea and uncontradicted proof that he was engaged in reporting when he was arrested, something his own photographs clearly showed. Two policemen testified against Stenin, claiming that only nine persons, not 20, participated in the rally and that the pieces of paper spelled out “Solidarity” not “Respect the Constitution.” But the word “solidarity” has twelve letters, not nine, and Stenin’s own photos clearly show that the inscription was as he claimed. Stenin testified that he never saw either of the two cops who testified against him before the trial, and Mikhail Safronov, deputy general director of RIA Novosti, recounted that the pair seemed to be repeating the memorized words of some other person, perhaps against their will.
The court was required to make an objective assessment of the blatant inconsistencies put forth by the prosecution, but it ignored the photographs and ruled that the statute making it a crime for a journalist to do his job was legal. Alexander Babinksy, RIA Novosti’s deputy editor, declared: “This is an unfair decision and creates a dangerous precedent. It is based on the outlandish testimony of law enforcement officers and exposes any journalist to criminal liability for simply doing his job, despite Constitutional protection.” He said his company would appeal the decision. Stenin stated: “I am not so outraged by the fact of my arrest, we journalists are accustomed to such things. But such a decision, issued by a court of law, is really absurd.
Photographers have no choice but to seek to protect their equipment since even a secondhand professional set can cost thousands of dollars. In an open letter to the Interior Ministry, RIA Novosti’s editors warned: “What happened to Stenin puts us in a situation where we place our staff at personal risk of harassment by law enforcement whenever we send them into the field. They can become victims of arbitrary events, twisting of facts and even fabricating of evidence, and any ordinary citizen regardless of profession or social status may just as easily be caught up in the proceedings.”
Only days ago another tragic event occurred: In Tomsk local journalist Konstantin Popov died of injuries he received after being brutally beaten by a policeman while in a drunk tank cell. The policeman has been arrested.