Letters   |   Russia

Opposition weekly forced to close amid official harassment

August 23, 2006

His Excellency Vladimir Putin
President of the Russian Federation
The Kremlin
Moscow, Russia

Via Facsimile: 011 7 495 206 5137/206 6277

Your Excellency,

The Committee to Protect Journalists is deeply troubled by an intense campaign of official harassment against the now-shuttered opposition weekly Novye Kolyosa (New Wheels) in the western city of Kaliningrad.

On August 16, the Kaliningrad Regional Court ordered the weekly closed at the request of the federal media regulator Rosokhrankultura. The regulator said Novye Kolyosa had disclosed secrets of a criminal investigation when it published a series of articles in May 2005 about the murder of a local businessman. The articles were based on video and audio recordings of testimony given by two detainees in the case, who confessed to the murder and said on tape that agents from the Kaliningrad branch of the Federal Security Service (FSB) had organized it. A lower court had denied Rosokhrankultura's request in June.

Rosokhrankultura is obliged by law to warn news outlets before moving to close them. Oleg Berezovsky, a Novye Kolyosa correspondent, told CPJ that the weekly received no such warning, despite Rosokhrankultura's assertions to the contrary.

The closing marks the nadir of a campaign of official harassment against the weekly and its journalists, including politicized criminal cases, an ongoing criminal defamation trial, obstruction of the paper's sales and distribution, seizure of the paper's print-runs, police raids, arson attacks on the newsroom, and a murder attempt on the paper's founder.

Kaliningrad prosecutors have opened numerous criminal cases against the paper's founder, Igor Rudnikov, and journalists Oleg Berezovsky, Aleksandr Berezovsky, and Dina Yakshina.

This month, prosecutors began trying a criminal libel case against Oleg Berezovsky on a claim filed by Kaliningrad Regional Court Judges Lyudmila Dolgova, Tatyana Tatarova, and Oksana Semyonova. The three accused the journalist of defaming them in a November 2004 article. The article questioned the acquittal and release of Aleksandr Fuks, who had been sentenced by a lower court to four years in prison for drug dealing. Fuks left the country immediately after his release. Oleg Berezovsky's trial started on August 7 in the same Kaliningrad Regional Court where the plaintiffs work. He is charged under Article 298 of the Russian Criminal Code, which is punishable by up to four years in prison. The presiding judge, Aleksandr Chernobylets, has been the subject of critical Novye Kolyosa articles, raising a perceived conflict of interest.

Earlier this year, Kaliningrad prosecutors opened four criminal defamation cases against Novye Kolyosa founder Rudnikov in response to articles published by the weekly in 2005. They also opened three separate criminal defamation cases against correspondent Yakshina in response to two of these articles. Here are details on those cases:

• From May to August 2005, Novye Kolyosa published a series of articles detailing the alleged involvement of agents from the Kaliningrad branch of the Federal Security Service (FSB) in the killing of a local businessman Oleg Pokanevich. The articles were based on the taped confessions of two suspects in the killing, brothers Aleksandr and Sergei Adamovich; both later recanted and Sergei Adamovich filed criminal defamation charges against Novye Kolyosa. Prosecutors did not probe the alleged involvement of the Kaliningrad FSB in Pokanevich's murder, and they closed the murder investigation for lack of suspects--all while opening a criminal defamation case against Rudnikov. The series was later used by the Kaliningrad Regional Court as grounds for closing the paper.

• In July 2005, a Novye Kolyosa story questioned whether Baltic Fleet Adm. Vladimir Valuyev was aware that a pornographic movie had been filmed aboard the cruiser Avrora. The article was written under the pseudonymous byline, M. Zheleznyak. Prosecutors have questioned Rudnikov about the author's identity, which he has refused to disclose. Also charged with criminal defamation in response to the same article is Yakshina. Prosecutors have opened separate cases against the two journalists.

• From September to December 2005, Novye Kolyosa published a series of articles about a local sauna, which the paper said was also a brothel. Police later arrested several people on prostitution-related charges there. One of the owners of the building housing the sauna, Vladimir Kramarenko, is the husband of Kaliningrad Regional Court Judge Olga Kramarenko. Following the publication of the articles, Judge Kramarenko filed a criminal defamation lawsuit against Novye Kolyosa. Prosecutors have opened separate cases against Rudnikov and Yakshina, who had written one of the articles.

• Olga Kramarenko's supervisor, Head Judge Viktor Faleyev of the Kaliningrad Regional Court, claimed he, too, was defamed by the sauna articles and filed separate criminal libel charges against Novye Kolyosa. In response to his claim, prosecutors opened two more cases against Rudnikov and Yakshina. None of the criminal defamation cases against Rudnikov and Yakshina have reached the Kaliningrad courts. Under Article 129 of Russia's criminal code, defamation carries a penalty of up to three years in prison.

In eight other criminal cases, founder Rudnikov and correspondents Oleg Berezovsky and Aleksandr Berezovsky are charged with insulting and beating 40 police officers during the March 2006 seizure of two Novye Kolyosa editions. The three are also charged with assaulting eight tax officers during a February 1 raid by tax police at the Novye Kolyosa newsroom. The raid and seizure coincided with Kaliningrad city and regional parliamentary elections and, thus, had the effect of inhibiting critical coverage of the vote. The cases against Novye Kolyosa have not gone to court yet.

Intensifying the pressure on the paper, the two main Kaliningrad companies responsible for distributing periodicals--Komsomolskaya Pravda-Kaliningrad and Pressa--refused in July to distribute Novye Kolyosa and gave no explanation. As a result, Novye Kolyosa cannot be sold in streets, kiosks, and supermarkets. Rudnikov told CPJ that vendors have reported official pressure. "They told us 'If we carry your paper, officials will bankrupt us,'" Rudnikov said. Since July, Novye Kolyosa had to cut its circulation nine times and could only distribute through the post office by subscription.

Persecution of Novye Kolyosa dates to 1996 when the Leningrad District Court in Kaliningrad heard--and dismissed--a criminal libel case filed by the deputy head of the local administration.

A series of violent attacks followed in 1998. In February of that year, a bomb exploded outside the newspaper's building. The next month, two Molotov cocktails were thrown through Rudnikov's office window. And in July, Rudnikov was severely beaten and suffered serious head injuries. The perpetrators in these attacks were never apprehended or prosecuted.

We are alarmed by these assaults on a news outlet that has filled a vital role in Kaliningrad by uncovering corruption and reporting on drugs and organized crime--topics shunned by other media. With the closure of Novye Kolyosa, the Kaliningrad community has been stripped of a crucial information source.

We urge you to bring an end to Rosokhrankultura's harassment of Novye Kolyosa, to reverse the agency's politicized effort to shutter the paper, and to request that the court vacate its closure order.

We also urge you to do everything in your power to ensure that criminal defamation charges against Igor Rudnikov, Oleg Berezovsky, and Dina Yakshina are dropped immediately and that allegations of criminal assault levied against Rudnikov, Oleg Berezovsky, and Aleksandr Berezovsky are impartially investigated. Given Kaliningrad authorities' history of harassing Novye Kolyosa for its reporting, we urge you to ensure that independent, neutral investigators are named to the cases.

We also call on you to work toward eliminating criminal defamation provisions from your country's penal code. Growing international practice, particularly in established democracies, recognizes civil remedies as adequate redress for defamation.

Thank you for your attention to this matter. We await your reply.

Sincerely,

Joel Simon
Executive Director


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