Galina Arapova on the 15th Anniversary of the Founding of the Media Rights Centre in Voronezh

posted 22 Nov 2011, 10:54 by Rights in Russia   [ updated 22 Nov 2011, 10:59 ]
One of the recent tendencies that can be mentioned, for example, is that claims against journalists are moving from ‘defamation’ to ‘extremism’. It is difficult to sue a journalist for their critical opinion on a claim of defamation. Media journalists have learnt how to defend their clients against lawsuits of this kind. But the authorities have found another way: they charge the journalists with extremism, with ‘inciting social hatred’. In Marii El, for example, a journalist wrote that the local administration was working badly, and the journalist was charged with inciting social hatred against ‘employees of the local administration’ considered as a ‘social group’. 


Text is from an interview with Galina Arapova to mark the 15th anniversary of the Media Rights Centre which she heads: Svetlana Tarasova, ‘A Court is Better than a Lynching,’ Voronezhsky kur’er, 15 November 2011 (No. 127) pp. 1, 6. 


[...] It would seem that you should have less work to do nowadays in protecting journalists. In my view they give less and less grounds to defend them. And in general, I think, people are paying less attention to them today. The written word has lost its value…

Quite the opposite, we are seeing only an increase. Despite the fact that many have given in, that administrative pressure on editors has grown, the number of trials has not got any less. They are becoming more sophisticated and complex. On average we deal with 80-100 cases each year. It sometimes happens that in one week we attend several court hearings. We run many of our cases from a distance, giving advice to lawyers on the spot. Just as people used to sue journalists in the past, so they are continuing to do so today. More recently it is officials and deputies who are suing journalists. For example in Khakasiya we have the case of Mikhail Afanasiev. He is a well-known journalist, he as his own website, Novyi Fokus, and he is the only journalist who covered the tragic events at the Sayano-Shushenskaya hydroelectric power station, the catastrophe caused by a failure of equipment, in a way that was independent of the official position. He was been assaulted, his website was confiscated from him. And now he is being sued by a local deputy with the somewhat comic name Lapaukh (similar to the Russian word ‘Lopukh’ – a colloquial word for ‘sucker’ – trans.). The trial is complex, for one reason because the judge cannot make an independent ruling in the case. We can see this from the fact that the linguistic expert in the case based his evaluation on the constitution of the United Russia political party. And recently I worked on a case in Stary Oskol where a candidate for the regional legislature from the Just Russia party decided to sue the authors of all the publications there had been about him over the past year.

What does the fact that the number of trials is not going down show?

Probably the fact that the authorities have an increasing number of levers they can use. But our region is not the most difficult. It’s also a good thing that for a long time now journalists in our region have not been assaulted.

Yes, well, perhaps it’s because there’s been no reason to beat them up.

In other regions, perhaps, there hasn’t been any reason either. Take the North Caucasus. There every year one or two journalists are killed. In that region they view both the profession of journalists and the regime in a quite different way. You get the feeling that Russia consists of a multitude of different countries. And we, in effect, are the only remaining organization that provides legal support to journalists. If you compare Voronezh with Tolyatti or Makhachkala then, generally speaking, the situation here seems rather good. But if, let’s say, we make the comparison with St. Petersburg, then everything looks rather bad. One of the recent tendencies that can be mentioned, for example, is that claims against journalists are moving from ‘defamation’ to ‘extremism’. It is difficult to sue a journalist for their critical opinion on a claim of defamation. Media journalists have learnt how to defend their clients against lawsuits of this kind. But the authorities have found another way: they charge the journalists with extremism, with ‘inciting social hatred’. In Marii El, for example, a journalist wrote that the local administration was working badly, and the journalist was charged with inciting social hatred against ‘employees of the local administration’ considered as a ‘social group’.

How do trials of this kind usually end?

In different ways. But in any case as a result of our work a journalist feels that he is not alone, that he is protected. Statistics we win 98% of all cases we take up. Of course, we directly change government policy. But we try to in our own way. In particular, for seven years now we have been going on about the need to abolish the criminal prosecution of journalists for slander and insult. By the end of this year the State Duma should have passed this bill. It has already been approved in its second reading.

Do you think that our judges maintain their independence from the authorities?

I look at things objectively: judges are a mixed group. When you work on a trial, you always feel whether there has been a ‘phone call from above’. There have been court cases when it was clear that whatever we said in court, it was like shooting a pea against a wall. And there have been cases when the opinion of the judge changed after they heard the arguments of the defence. And the officials involved are of various kinds too. Take for example the inderdistrict prosecutor Kolomytsev who is well-known in some quarters. The court case in which he was involved lasted a year and a half and there certainly were a large number of phone calls made at various levels. His lawyer believed that I was some kind of foolish child. In general, I must say, that has been the standard position of lawyers for fifty years now, especially among men and especially among those who became lawyers after service in the police or the prosecutor’s office. They see us and put on a knowing smile. And when we start to say something about the European Convention on Human Rights and the right to freedom of expression, their most characteristic gesture is to twist their finger in their forehead. True, when they lose the case to us, they are shocked.

It must be said that judges are often put under administrative pressure, but not all judges are ready to submit to this. For some judges a sense of self-respect is most important. They are quite independent. But there are others, like one judge in Tula, who hid her eyes and said that she was unable to issue a fair ruling. There in Tula the situation later changed. New people came to office and now she looks rather comical. It’s absurd, for example, that the linguistic expertise in that case in Tula was conducted by a teacher of mathematics and a psychologist. So you can see that each one of us can make their own choice…

How do judges relate to journalists?

In all sorts of ways. Some are prejudiced. If a publication is sharply critical, the try to humiliate the author, saying that the article has been paid for, written at somebody else’s orders and for money. And therefore it is important that journalists come to the court. For many judges, journalists are like some kind of phantom - some kind of weird bohemian element that is completely alien to them. And when the judge sees before them in the court a complete normal person with a civic stance, someone who wrote their article with a good conscience and so on, the stereotype in the judge’s mind suffers a severe blow.

You are one of the few people who respects journalists, who is trying to resurrect their reputation. But don’t you think that journalists themselves have done a lot to lose people’s respect?

I relate to different journalists in different ways. I fully understand how and why people write. But, I think, if all the internal goings-on of the journalistic profession are exposed in court, it would hardly be good either for the court or for the journalistic profession. There is a specific European standard: even if the judge is not right, don’t throw stones at him. If you dissuade society from the belief that all problems and conflicts must be decided in court, then we are going back to the level of the most primitive societies. In any case, a court is better than a lynching. Similarly, if we take away from society the trust that there are honest journalists, and if we persuade the journalists themselves that there is no sense in working with a good conscience, it will be the worse for all society. I believe that journalists, like judges, can be upright people. Many things remain outside the limits of the editorial policy of a particular publication. You can always choose not to write about something or other. It is always possible to choose not to violate ethical principles, not to intrude into another person’s privacy, not to write about something about which you know nothing. There must be a sense of responsibility towards those people about whom you are writing.
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