June 13, 2002
His Excellency Vladimir Putin
President of the Russian Federation
Via facsimile: 011-7-095-206-5173 / 206-6277
The Committee to Protect Journalists is deeply concerned that the independent, twice-weekly newspaper Novaya Gazeta, could be closed by the Basmanny District Court of Moscow at any time following proceedings to seal the paper’s property that were initiated last week by a bailiff. This action comes as a result of an excessive damage award in a recent libel suit against the paper.
Based on our research, CPJ believes that Novaya Gazeta is being deliberately targeted for its aggressive investigative journalism, which includes coverage of high-profile corruption cases with ties to government officials. The newspaper is also known for its highly critical stance against Moscow’s war in Chechnya.
On June 7, 2002, a bailiff from the Basmanny court visited the offices of Novaya Gazeta and initiated proceedings for sealing the newspaper’s property, which included conducting an inventory of the publication’s property and sequestering it.
Aleksei Polikovsky, an editor with the newspaper told CPJ in a telephone interview that the bailiff did not set a specific deadline for sequestering the property and that the staff plans to continue publishing
Novaya Gazeta‘s recent troubles began when a financial institution, Mezhprombank, sued the publication in Moscow’s Basmanny court, claiming that one of its business deals had collapsed because of a December 2001 Novaya Gazeta article. The newspaper reported that Mezhprombank was immersed in a scandal involving Russian money laundering through the Bank of New York.
Novaya Gazeta maintains that its reporting is accurate and contends that documents the paper procured demonstrate that it was not to blame for the collapse of the bank’s business deal. Yet the Basmanny court refused to accept the documents as evidence.
In February, the court ordered Novaya Gazeta to pay 15 million rubles (US$482,309) in damages to the bank. As a small publication, Novaya Gazeta cannot afford such an outrageous fine and would be driven to bankruptcy if forced to pay.
To prove its innocence, the newspaper sought to open a criminal fraud case against Mezhprombank with the Moscow prosecutor’s office. However, the case file containing all documents disappeared unexpectedly.
According to the newspaper’s editor-in-chief, Dmitry Muratov, the Basmanny court claims it sent the documents to the prosecutor’s office, while the city prosecutor’s office maintains that it never received the documents.
The Russian press should be encouraged to uncover high-level corruption and contribute to the public debate on state policies, not punished for fulfilling its professional duty and aiding the government in its proclaimed war against corruption and crime.
CPJ calls on Your Excellency to do everything within your power to ensure that Novaya Gazeta‘s criminal fraud case file of charges against Mezhprombank is recovered and that the case receives a fair examination. While we recognize the right to dispute defamation in civil proceedings, the outrageously excessive fine imposed in this case would annihilate a small media outlet through judicial means. The Russian courts cannot be allowed to become instruments of those who seek to muzzle press freedom in Russia.
Thank you for your attention to these urgent matters. We await your reply.