As world press event approaches, Russian agency evicts journalist union

New York, May 16, 2007—A federal property agency is evicting the Russian Union of Journalists (RUJ) from its Moscow offices as the press organization is preparing for the 26th World Congress of Journalists, an international gathering of media workers starting on May 28 in Russia’s capital. The Committee to Protect Journalists is deeply troubled by the government’s action, and it calls on authorities to allow Russia’s largest journalist association to operate without obstruction.

The RUJ received a notice dated April 18 from the Federal Property Management Agency, or Rosimushchestvo, ordering the union to vacate its headquarters on Zubovsky Boulevard within a month, the union’s Secretary-General Igor Yakovenko told CPJ today. Yakovenko said the notice was not delivered until today—leaving the RUJ just two days to leave offices that it and its predecessor has occupied since 1980.

The federal property agency did not explain the sudden decision to evict the group, Yakovenko said. Russian press reports said the RUJ premises would be given to Russia Today, a state-run English-language satellite television channel created to boost Russia’s international image. Kommersant quoted Russia Today’s press office as saying the station “could really use the space” to create a Spanish-language spinoff. Russia Today began broadcasting in 2005.

“This action and its timing are clearly political and send a distressing message. As international journalists gather in Moscow, the government is ousting an independent press group in favor of an outlet dedicated to propaganda,” CPJ Executive Director Joel Simon said. “CPJ calls on the government to reconsider its actions, to stop harassing our colleagues, and to allow them to do their work freely.”

RUJ is a professional association that trains journalists, monitors press issues, and defends the interests of journalists. Its member groups include the country’s leading press freedom advocacy organizations, the Center for Journalists in Extreme Situations and the Glasnost Defense Fund. Both organizations, which have been critical of the Kremlin’s press freedom record, are located in the Zubovsky Boulevard building and must leave as well.

On March 20, 1998, then-President Boris Yeltsin issued a decree that gave the RUJ use of the building on Zubovsky Boulevard. Yakovenko told the business daily Kommersant that he believes the lease to be “infinite and unlimited.”

The 26th World Congress of Journalists, organized by the International Federation of Journalists, will draw representatives from more than 160 organizations worldwide. Press freedom in Russia is to be the Congress’ main focus this year. This month, CPJ named Russia one of the world’s worst backsliders on press freedom.