Galina Arapova on how the Mass Media Defence Centre became a "foreign agent" and the state of the media in contemporary Russia

posted 13 May 2018, 09:30 by Rights in Russia   [ updated 14 May 2018, 12:12 ]
2 May 2018

An interview with Galina Arapova, director of the Mass Media Defence Centre, a media rights organisation based in Voronezh

Source: Moscow Helsinki Group [original source: Radio Svoboda]

The Mass Media Defence Centre is located in Voronezh. Journalists from around the country turn to the Centre when they face threats of a criminal prosecution or high fines. Three years ago, this non-profit was given the status of "foreign agent."

Galina Arapova, director and leading lawyer at the Centre and laureate of a Moscow Helsinki Group award for human rights, spoke with Radio Svoboda about what has changed in the organisation’s work since the government began its ongoing battle with non-profit organizations. 

In 2016, Galina Arapova became the first lawyer in Russia to receive an award “For Outstanding Contribution of a Practising Lawyer to the Defence of Human Rights” from the International Bar Association. In a congratulatory message, Governor Aleksei Gordeev wrote: "Thanks to you, the Mass Media Defence Centre has gained a reputation as one of the most authoritative legal organizations in Russia and abroad."

In the 22 years of the Centre's operation, thousands of journalists and editors throughout Russia have received legal assistance.

In the defamation cases taken on last year by the Centre's lawyers, prosecutors demanded 25 million roubles from journalists and editors as "compensation for psychological damage." In total, 95,000 roubles were paid, or 0.38%.

This number shows how important the Mass Media Defence Centre is to the Russian press.

Like many nonprofits in Russia, the Centre is financed by grants. Russian donors, however, prefer to direct funds toward helping the environment, sick children, and cultural and scientific projects. Support for human-rights causes comes last for them. Since the beginning of the 2000s, after Vladimir Putin's rise to power, the conditions for financing the Third Sector have become stringent, says Galina Arapova:

First, business owners lost the ability to allocate 3% of profits to charity. This percentage was tax-deductible. Now, officially you cannot donate even pennies; this is punished as tax evasion. This was a blow to the development of philanthropy in Russia. Then the number of charitable foundations, whose donations were exempt from taxation when given as a grant for projects in the public interest, shrunk. There used to be 128, and only 12 are left. Of them, only the European Commission gives money for human rights causes. 

Then came the laws on "foreign agent" NGOs and "undesirable organizations." Now, foreign media sources are considered "foreign agents," and by the looks of it soon individuals too will be called "foreign agents."

There's a proliferation of bureaucratic paranoia. I can't explain it any other way: it's the feeling that people in power sincerely believe that everyone around them is their enemy and is working against them. We didn't have a chance to prove that we're not "foreign agents." My comments on legal matters in newspapers were considered "political activity," although this is part of a lawyer's job: publications often ask me to comment on new laws and cases. I was the chairperson of the Public Advisory Council of the Voronezh subdivision of the Ministry Internal Affairs for a long time. This was also considered "political activity."

So you were expecting to be put on the list of foreign agents?

We knew that it would happen to us. Our Justice Department lumped everything together as "politics," and they did this not just diligently, but with gusto. True, the director and their immediate subordinate aside, other rank and file staff members understood exactly what was going on. The woman who was charged with signing the protocol on behalf of the Justice Department was so ashamed she had to take Valium. I cried, and she was hysterical. NOD (National Liberation Movement) members stood outside holding posters against me although, when I walked right past them they didn’t react at all - they didn't even know what I looked like or what the Centre actually does. It was theatre of the absurd from start to finish. The woman who signed the protocol fainted in the courthouse while answering our questions. We called an ambulance and gave her water. She resigned after a few days.

People can be made to sign what needs to be signed, but it's clear that some find it disgusting to be involved in this spectacle.

What changes did the status of foreign agent bring? Did it get harder for you to work?

We lost the ability to work with government bodies, to conduct seminars for employees in the press offices of municipal and law enforcement agencies and regional courts. For instance, how do you issue a press release so that you don’t get sued afterward? People were standing in line for this training. They organized everything themselves, paid for everything, waited for openings in my schedule. I’ve held trainings for all the press offices of the Ministry of Internal Affairs in the country, and for the Legal Department of the Supreme Court. Lipetsk, Ivanovo, Tula, Moscow, Voronezh, Kemerovo. . . . But they’ve put us on the registry, so Chelyabinsk, which has been waiting for six months, has canceled its seminar. Everyone is continuing to consult individually.

And you’re still giving these consultations?

Naturally. Why not? They need legal advice, and I’m giving it to them without any difficulty, and so are my lawyers. But unofficially now. We’ve stopped our publishing activity. Our series of twelve handbooks for editors and lawyers in editorial offices dealing with various aspects of media law has gone through several new editions. Defamation in the media, coverage of matters of private life, issues of election law, how to report on extreme situations, crime reporting, legal reporting. Many judges still use them.

And a new edition is possible only if stamped “foreign agent”?

Yes. Judges won’t even be able to put it on their desk. We put a disclaimer on our site saying, “We are performing the functions of a foreign agent. We consider the decision to add the Mass Media Defence Centre to the registry of foreign agents illegal and are seeking its repeal.” But in the book, this disclaimer has to be in the bibliographical information, and we find that terribly offensive.

The decision to halt publication of the books coincided with a growth in online education and a sharp increase in the volume of work. The number of consultations has grown from fifteen hundred to 4,500!

Courts can no longer call us in to hold seminars for judges on Russian media law and the European Convention. They were extremely popular. You could see a clear dynamic in how judges view cases differently and refer to the practice of the European court. They’d started to understand it, and they liked that. After all, this is a completely different level of legal thought, analysis, and skill.

Many regional newspapers working under the roofs of state media holdings could not renew contracts with us for legal assistance. We are continuing to provide them with help free of charge charge.

One bank refused to service our account, so we closed it.

Does your ‘foreign agent’ status bother those coming to you for the first time or returning?

There are probably people who have not come to us because we are “foreign agents.” But how can we know for certain? Those who know us haven’t rejected working with us. They’ve taken the verdict against us as a personal blow, as the loss of an opportunity to acquire legal support, and they’ve supported us and organized a Russian-wide campaign. They built us a support site in a week’s time. Hat’s off, thanks to everyone. Banners of support for the Centre are still on social networks and on the sites of several online publications. I don’t think the Justice Ministry was expecting anything of the kind.

Governor Aleksei Gordeev has expressed a high opinion of you. And now they have slandered the Centre with the status of foreign agent. How are officials reacting?

Many of them have behaved much more decently than might have been expected. For example, at a strategic government conference, Vladimir Orlov, at the time head of the Justice Ministry, began recounting how he had “heroically” exposed a “cesspool of spies.” He was interrupted: “If you’re talking about Arapova, then you have absolutely no idea what you’re talking about. This is utter nonsense.” They wouldn’t even let him finish his fiery speech.

You mean some people in state structures are unhappy with the situation?

I think they’ve at least seen the contradiction. They’ve accepted me as a professional and a decent person, and when this nasty label was hung on me, they realized that something was wrong here and refused to participate in the defamation. I have to give the governor his due. He has publicly supported us from the moment we were added to the registry. At a press conference, he told reporters that he was prepared, if necessary, to testify in court to the fact that we are not engaged in any political activity whatsoever and are an authoritative organization. He has pedantically congratulated me on every holiday with a government telegram, has given us an award, and has called the pride of Voronezh region. Given that we have already been deemed a “foreign agent,” this was brave. And we are sincerely grateful for this. But this is not a typical example. It was all much harsher in other regions.

Galina, does the centre still take foreign money?

There’s no other money! If there is an activity that requires resources (taxes, salaries) and there are fifteen employees then what other options are there? The first thing to do is to generate money. The second is to raise money from charitable sources. We were registered as a non-profit from the beginning, we didn’t intend to make any money. There is no money to be made in the protection of human rights – we’re not selling tyres or cosmetic procedures. Lots of journalists can’t afford to pay eve 500 roubles for a consultation. This was never a condition of whether or not we would help.

Can you not take money for legal aid?

No, we can and sometimes do take money when it’s not a question of freedom of speech, but something like advertisement legislation. In this we are unlike other NGOs, who work with victims of violence, torture, the parents of conscripts who have died in the army, who obviously cannot pay for all the legal processes whilst they are dealing with their grief. When we’re talking about human rights you can’t take money from those being protected in every case. That is why the world over, protection of human rights is based upon non-commercial principles.

We work with foundations so that a journalist won’t think twice about whether he can afford the help of a lawyer when he’s been thrown out of a building, been forbidden from filming, beaten up, or taken to court for something. Many editorial boards consult with us on issues of advertising and copyright – we have contracts with them on a subscription service basis. They have access to six experienced lawyers twenty-four hours a day. They write almost around the clock. Lawyers from editorial offices consult with us but paid consultations make up only 7% of our budget.

Now some NGOs have turned to crowdfunding: the cry goes out, support us, however much you can, we are doing good work.

Yes, but firstly it’s seen in our society as “begging.” Secondly, people in Russia, if they donate, they do so only for three things: sick children, homeless animals and the construction of churches. Last year we received from ‘Yandex Wallet’ 12,000 roubles. Crowdfunding is good when you’re appealing to a wide audience and it understands the value of what you’re protecting. But here the average citizen wants censorship brought in. They have no idea what freedom of speech is, they think that it is a total absence of authority and child porn on the internet.

Media legislation is getting tougher. What problems linked with journalists and the media in general do you now have to work with most frequently?

At the end of the nineties there was more violence against journalists, murders. Issues about publications that weren’t liked were dealt with by crowbar. At the beginning of the millennium people started to file more suits in court and conflicts began to be resolved in a civilised manner. In the years before 2008 there were on average 4,500 defamation lawsuits concerning per year. Now there are around 700 cases like these as other means of catching journalists have appeared.

The number of criminal cases has increased, and many are absolutely cynical and wild in nature, they result in terms in prison or hellish fines. Cases of paedophilia, extortion, commercial bribery, false denunciation are filed. At our invitation, the lawyer Tumas Misakyan defended Sergei Reznik, a journalist in Rostov-on-Don recognized as a political prisoner who served three years. He was investigating corruption in law enforcement agencies. He wrote on Live Journal and was even more sharp and harsh there than he had been in the press. He called the chairman of the court a “feathered donkey” and a policeman a “c*ntstable” [the Russian original of this insult is also a play on the sound of the word: 

In order to remove him from the internet, they came up with an easy option: they hit him with other charges, “Offending government officials” being the last of these. He was accused of attempted commercial bribery for having allegedly arranged a fake MOT certificate. The only witness was the investigating officer who wrote the official report. Reznik is an impulsive person. He read the report and said, "Have you lost your mind? Did the officer see me talking to the car service manager? Well, maybe I saw him bothering a small child. That would be just as crazy." When a person is defending him or herself against a criminal charge, they might say all manner of things. It’s a form of defence. But, on top of that, he was accused of making a false accusation of paedophilia against the officer. Then he ended up in intensive care after he had been assaulted with a baseball bat. As part of the investigation, he was asked, "Who do you think it was?" He named a few people who might have had a grudge against him. They noted this down as though he was just making another false accusation. They put it to him that he had staged his own attack in order to improve his ratings. In all, he was charged with commercial bribery, making a false accusation and, to cap it all, offending a public official.

The same thing happened to the Kaliningrad editor of the Novye Kolesa magazine, Igor Rudnikov. He stands accused of extorting $50,000 from the regional head of the Investigative Committee. He was arrested on 1 November and carted out onto the street in his underwear and crocs. Rudnikov was driven around that way for days, when taken for questioning and out on searches. Plus, it was raining outside. The man was fifty. They wanted to humiliate him. They put him in handcuffs, seriously injuring his hand, and beat him. He is getting 15 years for grand larceny. All because six months earlier, he had written that the head of the Investigative Committee was discovered to own a 200 million-rouble house in a conservation area. His editorial office stopped issuing the paper, and no publishing house would take them. The editor has been in Lefortovo for six months now.

The press has come under mass state control. Publishing houses and holding companies have been set up to encompass all regional papers, which have in turn lost their independence and control of content. The level of self-censorship has risen sharply.

Roskomnadzor's powers have expanded dramatically. Whereas it originally dealt with media registrations for the most part, now Roskomnadzor has crept into content. It is responsible for monitoring compliance with media legislation and maintains a register of proscribed information and an anti-piracy register. It exercises control over bloggers and 'foreign agents' (insofar as it labels entities as such), and it blocks websites. It governs compliance with the Law on Personal Data and legislation on extremism.

You cannot write about methods and motives for suicide or identify child victims of offences. You may well believe that you are fighting the good fight, and then – bam! Roskomnadzor will demand a million-rouble fine. Everywhere you look, the list of grounds for blocking is growing longer. That is why seminars for journalists are needed. If you write down the personal details of a missing child the whole world is looking for, then you should delete those details from the internet afterwards (all posts and reposts). The number of claims against editors is skyrocketing. They are beginning to be afraid to write about issues of public interest, including human rights violations, rallies and violence against children. Such issues are being covered up, and there is now this illusion that life is wonderful, and children aren't getting killed and don't get lost, so there is no need to search for the missing.

The subject of Crimea still comes up a lot. If you write anything about issues in that region, other than the fact that a magnificent bridge is being built there, then you risk being prosecuted under the article of the Criminal Code on “separatism.” There are plenty of criminal cases like these.

Then there is a whole raft of issues that nominally come under 'extremism'. There is a very long list of activities that are considered extremism, from offending religious feelings, to justification of terrorism, incitement to ethnic and religious hatred, and the display of Nazi symbols – even trivial criticism of the government. It really is a minefield. It is difficult to write about international issues. Criticism or challenging views in this area are particularly dangerous. If you so much as post a poster by the 'Kukryniksy' [a Soviet-era cartoonists' collective] or a wartime photo from the archives that has a swastika on it - "Eat this hand grenade, you Fascist!" – then you're an extremist.

They scour hyperlinks, blogs and comments left on the websites of media publications for obscenities. Editors don’t know how to deal with it all and what other issues to avoid in order to survive. 

Translated by Lindsay Munford, Marian Schwartz, Matthew Quigley and Nina de Palma