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Galina Sidorova and Grigory Pasko on latest attack against School of Investigative Journalism in Yoshkar-Ola. "The situation is becoming ever more insane and the level of repression ever harsher."

posted 1 May 2017, 02:13 by Rights in Russia   [ updated 1 May 2017, 10:47 ]
27 April 2017

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

A group of unidentified men carried out a number of provocative acts last night in Yoshkar-Ola against Galina Sidorova, one of the directors of the School of Investigative Journalism, in an attempt to stop a seminar with members of the local press from taking place. Grigory Pasko, another director at the school, wrote about the acts of provocation in Yoshkar-Ola on his Facebook page: “Yet another school of investigation journalism – this time in Yoshkar-Ola – is being threatened with closure."  

The police are looking into the details of the incident. The building that houses the School of Investigative Journalism is equipped with video cameras. There have been previous attempts to disrupt seminars held by the School of Investigative Journalism in Petrozavodsk, Nizhnevartovsk, Tomsk, Moscow region, Moscow, Syktyvkar, and Ulyanovsk. Journalists have been threatened, refused the right to rent premises, and evacuated following anonymous bomb threats. On 27 September 2016, Grigory Pasko was attacked by unidentified persons following a seminar at a school in Barnaul.

Galina Sidorova told Radio Svoboda that at around two in the morning, the ground floor window of the private guest house where the School of Investigative Journalism’s seminars were being held was smashed. A dead rat was later discovered underneath the window. According to Sidorova, a young man threw a plastic jar of green disinfectant at her back the morning before as she made her way into the guest house.

“We have been holding seminars like these in the regions for a few years now. Recently, since being designated as ‘foreign agents,’ we have started coming under all kinds of pressure. Take the latest incident. The Glasnost Defence Foundation and our Community of Investigative Journalists - 19/29 Foundation, were attempting to hold one of our schools of investigative journalism in Yoshkar-Ola. When my colleague Igor Korolkov arrived on the very first day, the electricity was cut off in the building where everything was to take place just as it was all about to begin. As a result, we were unable to turn on our computers and other technical equipment. It also meant that the alarm system at the guest house was switched off. The next day was my turn. The first thing to happen literally took place on the doorstep of the guest house: a young man hiding by the gate poured a jar of green disinfectant over me without saying anything, then ran away. We didn’t call the police at that point because we had a rough idea of what they’d say to us. It was maybe wrong of us not to call them straight away.”

– What happened next?

“The seminars took place yesterday as planned. In the evening we were still at the house – me and a colleague, our partner, who had been helping us organise the seminars. Around two in the morning, we heard a car drive up and then the awful sound of breaking glass. Naturally it wasn’t very nice because the area we were in was sparsely populated. When we went down to see what had happened, we discovered that a triple-glazed window had been smashed and there was a dead rat lying underneath the window. They hadn’t even bothered to catch a wild rat; a poor domestic rat died for investigative journalism. We also found a jar of green antiseptic, a kind of hallmark of these lowlifes.”

– Did you call the police?

“Naturally we called the police after this and they took down all our statements, listened to all our explanations. I’m planning to continue working today, of course. I don’t know what will happen next, but we are not going to give in. And I certainly don’t think that any of it was random. But the problem is not with the lowlifes, who unfortunately think that they’re free to do anything they like because of the way the authorities feel about independent journalism, an independent press. There is absolutely no way that their appearance was a coincidence. I think our intelligence agencies have been keeping a close eye on us for a few years now. In any case, after the aggression began in Ukraine, this kind of pressure was clearly stepped up in various ways. So all these incidents, these forms of intimidation that are going on, they’re all happening with the full knowledge of the Moscow authorities, primarily Russia’s intelligence agencies. Because judging by the fact that these people know where to find us, our telephones are being tapped and we are evidently under surveillance. And this comes as absolutely no surprise to us. It just proves, yet again, what is happening in our country right now to our independent press, to civil society and to the opposition. It’s all just links in the same chain,” Galina Sidorova said.

Grigory Pasko, one of the founders of the School of Investigative Journalism, was sentenced to four years’ imprisonment on espionage charges in 2001 and released on parole in 2003. He is now director of the Czech-registered Foundation "Community of Investigative Journalists – Foundation 19/29”, which serves as an umbrella organisation for schools of journalism in Russia. The following is his opinion on the likely success of the investigation into the attack on Galina Sidorova:

– We are not in a position to do anything in the face of the regime which is currently at the helm in the Russian Federation. Even in the unlikely event that we were to set up self-defence groups, they would track us down and put us in prison far more quickly than they have taken action in respect of the criminals all over Russia who have attacked us over the past two years. Not a single one of these criminals has been tried by a court or held criminally liable, notwithstanding all the evidence available in connection with the bomb threats, paint throwing, beatings etc. None of these cases – involving Liudmila Ulitskaya, Aleksei Navalny and Ilya Varlamov, for example – have been investigated properly and in full by the police; the same happened to me and now the same will happen with the attack on Galina Sidorova. This must mean that the police have been told not do so, given that most of these crimes have been witnessed by two or three hundred people and recorded on three or four CCTV cameras, and this evidence could be used to find the criminals in just two or three hours. It is likely that the criminals were thugs from the National Liberation Movement acting on orders from the Federal Security Service.

– This is of course not the first time that teachers and students from the School of Investigative Journalism have been attacked. What makes you so dangerous, and why do the authorities hate you so much?

– The real insult is that we do not do not pose a threat to anyone. I’d find it easier to understand if we presented some kind of risk to the city authorities; if the teachers themselves carried out investigations, for example. To tell the truth we do still dabble in journalism to a very minor extent – op eds, educational projects and so on – but the authorities hate the very genre of “investigative journalism”, and they hate it so much that they attempt to eradicate it in its embryonic stages. It is notable that almost none of Russia’s universities with a journalism department offer courses in investigative journalism – only five or six in the whole country, and these do not include Moscow State University, where I taught for five years, since the specialism was shut down by Vartanova.

– What is the current legal status of your School of Journalism? Where does it get its funding, and what exactly is it? What does it do to make the authorities hate it so much?

– The School has been in existence since 2011, at which point it was known as the Foundation for the Promotion of Investigative Journalism. Within only a few years, we were one of the first organisations to be placed on the list of foreign agents. We went to court ourselves and told them that the Foundation had been shut down, because I had no intention of getting caught up in stupid games with the authorities – never-ending fines every two months, endless fault-finding and so on. We closed the first Foundation and registered a new one in Prague, which is called “Foundation 19/29 – Community of Investigative Journalists”. It has many different sources of funding, including private individuals and journalists themselves, as well as those organisations which have not yet found themselves on Russia’s list of undesirable organisations.

– Can you name any examples?

– No, of course I mustn’t. The Foundation is a Czech organisation, and I’m happy to explain the details of its funding to anyone who cares to ask in the Czech Republic, but not in Russia.

– What future do you see for the School for Journalism in modern-day Russia? Will they ultimately allow you to continue your activities, or will the attacks continue?

– It won’t be an easy task to continue – the situation is becoming ever more insane and the level of repression ever harsher, and it will get worse before it gets better, particularly in the run-up to the 2018 elections. In my opinion, before 2024 there is little chance of improvement for investigative journalism, opposition politics or free politics in general – not to mention censorship on the Internet and so on.

– Even after your prison sentence, and the attacks and beatings you have suffered, you have not left the country and you are still living and working in Russia. Why?

– I met my old friend Arkady Babchenko recently and he asked me the same question – why the hell are you still in Russia? In all honesty, I wasn’t sure what to say.

Translated by Nicky Brown and Joanne Reynolds