Glasnost Defence Foundation lodges application with European Court of Human Rights over 'foreign agent' law

posted 19 Dec 2016, 07:06 by Rights in Russia   [ updated 19 Dec 2016, 07:10 ]
12 December 2016


An application has been lodged with the European Court of Human Rights concerning the inclusion of the Glasnost Defence Foundation in the register of so-called 'foreign agent’ NGOs, the Centre for the Defence of Media Rights reports.

The Glasnost Defence Foundation has appealed to the ECtHR over its inclusion on the Ministry of Justice's registry of “foreign agent” NGOs.

The organisation was included in the blacklist in November 2015, after an unscheduled inspection by the Moscow department of the justice ministry. Officials cited the “presence of political activity” in the GDF’s work.

According to ministry officials, this "political activity" consisted of holding a School of investigative journalism for journalists and bloggers, of collaborating with the Foundation for Investigative Journalism 19/29, and of distributing digests concerning the violation of journalists’ rights in Russia.

Speeches at the School by members of the opposition Rustem Adagamov, Aleksei Navalny and famous author Boris Akunin were cited as “evidence” of the GDF’s political activity.

However, Ministry of Justice officials never actually attended the School – they were shown recordings of the speech of the blogger Adagamov at the journalism faculty of Moscow State University. Moreover, everyone knows that Boris Akunin is a pen name and not a real person, but that hasn’t stopped him ending up on an official justice ministry document.

In March of this year, Moscow Khamovnichesky district court fined the GDF 300,000 roubles for not registering on the “foreign agent” list voluntarily. In April, the organisation tried to dispute the investigation and the resulting report, as well as its inclusion on the register, but all claims were dismissed by Moscow Gagarin district court. An appeal to Moscow City Court did not help either.

In its complaint to the ECtHR, the GDF points to the violation by the Russian authorities of three articles of the European Convention on Human Rights: Article 10 (freedom of expression), Article 11 (freedom of assembly and association) and Article 14 (prohibition of discrimination).

The GDF was defended in court by lawyers Tumas Misakyan, Galina Arapova of the Centre for the Defence of Media Rights, and Svetlana Zemskova of the GDF. The application to the ECtHR was prepared by Tumas Misakyan.

“The justice ministry’s classification of the Foundation’s dissemination of information about the violation of journalists’ rights as ‘political activity’ is clearly unfounded and violates the right of the organisation to free speech and freedom to disseminate information of public interest,” Misakyan said.

“We shall also put before the European Court the question of whether the Foundation is experiencing discrimination from the authorities. It operates in a comparable context to those NGOs which receive financing from Russian sources, but being obliged to register as an NGO which operates as a foreign agent and mark all its informational materials ‘foreign agent’ places it on a different footing to NGOs which operate exclusively on Russian money. It affects the frequency and extent of the reporting they must do, and imposes further limitations, high fines and the exposure of the head of the organisation to criminal responsibility.”

“A ‘foreign agent’ label is like the ‘blood group marked on the sleeve’ in the song by Viktor Tsoi, or the yellow star for Jews – it is impossible to accept, impossible to bear, and as promised we will carry our protest to the furthest extent – to the Supreme court and the European Court of Human Rights,” said GDF President Aleksei Simonov. “Although, to be honest, we really feel like saying to hell with it and close down, although twenty-five years of honest service to journalists and journalism will not allow that. So, we wait for news.”

“The inclusion of the GDF, the oldest Russian organisation that works to protect the press and journalists, on the register of ‘foreign agents’ is clearly a disgrace,” said Galina Arapova, director of the Centre for the Defence of Media Rights. ‘The very poor quality of the documents prepared by the Ministry of Justice, and the absence of logic, in spite of the lack of evidence that the GDF engages in political activity, is generally typical of such cases in Russia. This shows yet again that the intention was to include the Foundation on the register for any reason they could find, no matter what.

“Unfortunately, the judicial process was an empty formality. In observing formal legal procedure, the court did not even try to get to the heart of the issue.

“The last session in the Moscow Gagarin district court began five minutes before the end of the working day, at 17.55, and concluded with the handing down of a judgment at 22.00. It is a pity that the court did not give the same application as it showed in working outside normal hours to getting to grips with the issue at hand.

“We hope that the European Court of Human Rights will give this matter a proper assessment. The approach of the regulatory bodies and courts brings forcibly to mind a paraphrase of the words of Sharikov in Mikhail Bulgakov's Heart of a Dog: 'Oh how we kept sending them to jail, sending them to jail …'

But we don’t intend to give in, whatever the level of farce we have experienced in the Moscow courts in the course of defending the GDF – a level of farce in proportion to the absurdity of the Ministry of Justice’s accusation that the highly-respected Glasnost Defence Foundation is an ‘agent’. I am sure we will achieve justice in the European court.”

As well as the representation to the ECHR, the GDF has sent an appeal to Moscow City Court.

Translated by Anna Bowles