Successor of Internews Russia suspends activity after police search

New York, April 23, 2007—The Committee to Protect Journalists is very concerned about the effective closure of the Educated Media Foundation in Moscow last week. The foundation, the successor to Internews Russia, has been shut down since last Wednesday, when economic police searched its premises for 11 hours, seized all financial records, and shut down the organization’s servers.

At noon last Wednesday, more than 20 officers arrived at the Educated Media Foundation, saying they were checking the organization for financial improprieties. “The police are polite,” the foundation’s director, Manana Aslamazian, told CPJ by phone that day. “No one is being roughed up.” But the raid continued into the night and resulted in the suspension of all activity.

Active since 1997, Internews Russia has played a key role in the development of the country’s independent media. According to the group’s statistics, about 15,000 people have taken part in its programs through the years, receiving training in areas such as reporting, media management, and broadcast production.

“We call on Russian authorities to return all seized records to the Educated Media Foundation and allow it to carry out its important work without fear of harassment,” CPJ Executive Director Joel Simon said. “As Internews, the group has had a long tradition of supporting independent, sustainable media in Russia.”

Aslamazian said the raid on the Educated Media Foundation was connected to a criminal case opened against her in February on charges of smuggling foreign currency into Russia. On January 21, after a personal trip to Paris, she was detained by customs officers at Moscow’s Sheremetyevo Airport for failing to declare 2,964 euros (US$4,024) over the allowed cash limit. Aslamazian, who said the violation was unintentional, was charged with smuggling. Customs police confiscated all 9,550 euros (US$12,964) she was carrying—a personal debt she had collected from a friend in Paris, according to the English-language daily Moscow Times.

Following the incident, key Russian journalism organizations, including the National Association of Television and Radio Broadcasters, the Russian Union of Journalists, and the Glasnost Defense Foundation, sent appeals to the Russian prosecutor general’s office in support of Aslamazian, asking authorities to consider her contribution to the development of independent media in Russia and to investigate her case as an administrative rather than criminal violation, the Educated Media Foundation said in a statement published on the main Internews Web site on Friday. Prosecutors said the case against Aslamazian would be “thoroughly investigated.”

“Since February, I hadn’t heard anything from authorities about my case,” Aslamazian told CPJ last week. “Why they decided to act just now, I don’t know.” She said she had not been notified about her case’s transfer from the Moscow transportation prosecutor’s office to the economic security department at the Interior Ministry. “I don’t understand why authorities are using a personal case against me to search Internews and confiscate our documents,” Aslamazian added. “All our financing is legal and transparent.”

As of last Wednesday, all activities of the Educated Media Foundation had been suspended, the organization’s statement said. Police shut down the foundation’s Web site, and its mail, finance, and program servers. (The program server carries information on coming seminar and training activities.) “There is no way to make announcements about seminars, no means to receive applications to participate, send invoices, check on the execution of existing contracts—they have all been seized,” the organization said. “In addition, the video servers were also seized, which held all the material for editing students’ work and video productions for all television projects.”

Board Member Svetlana Sorokina told Russian media on Wednesday she believed authorities were using the criminal case against Aslamazian as a pretext to search the organization as part of a broader campaign of harassment against independent NGOs, particularly those receiving foreign funding.

In late 2006, Internews Russia joined with Educated Media Foundation, a group founded by private Russian individuals from the television, education, culture, science and business sectors, the Educated Media Foundation’s statement said. As of January 2007, the foundation became the official legal successor of Internews Russia.

The group said it received several grants—all of which were officially declared—to fund its 2007 activities; they included aid from the United States Agency for International Development (USAID), Internews Europe, and the Ford Foundation. “We do not wish to politicize what has happened,” the group said. “However, for the past year we have noticed with what extreme caution—and even, on some occasions, suspicion—law enforcement agencies have regarded our activities.”

In January 2006,  despite a loud local and international outcry, President Vladimir Putin signed into law a restrictive bill regulating the work of NGOs, including those dedicated to the support of independent media. The measure gives the state broad authority to shutter NGOs for unspecified activities that run counter to the “political independence of the Russian Federation.”