New York, July 2, 2008—Two journalists in Russia’s Bashkortostan Republic have been convicted under the country’s vague extremism law. Each has been sentenced to serve a suspended two-year prison term. Their newspaper has been shuttered.
On June 25, the Kirov District Court in the regional capital of Ufa, in the central Russian Republic of Bashkortostan, convicted and sentenced Viktor Shmakov, editor-in-chief of the independent newspaper Provintsialnye Vesti (Provincial News), and contributing writer Airat Dilmukhametov, according to the official Web site of the Prosecutor’s Office of the Republic of Bashkortostan. The two were convicted of violating the Constitution of the Russian Federation, and breaking laws on media and extremism
In addition to the prison sentences, the two were banned from working as journalists for another year, the verdict said.
“We are disturbed by this conviction which is part of a trend among Russian authorities to use sweeping ‘extremism’ legislation to chill critical coverage,” said CPJ’s Europe and Central Asia Program Coordinator Nina Ognianova. “We call on Bashkortostan courts to overturn the conviction of Viktor Shmakov and Airat Dilmukhametov, and allow them to work as journalists.”
Shmakov told CPJ that the Kirov District Court ordered Provintsialnye Vesti to close in early June at the request of the local prosecutors; authorities claimed the newspaper violated media and extremism legislation by allegedly committing technical violations—such as failing to send free copies to state agencies and not publishing on a regular basis—and publishing extremist materials. Shmakov told CPJ he will appeal the verdict.
Prosecutors opened a criminal case against Shmakov and Dilmukhametov in 2006, after Shmakov published two articles by Dilmukhametov in a special edition of Provintsialniye Vesti ahead of the upcoming opposition rally in April of that year. In them, Dilmukhametov accused regional authorities of corruption, and called for the resignation of President Murtaza Rakhimov, who has ruled the oil-rich and mostly Muslim republic since 1993.
In its official press release on June 25, Bashkortostan prosecutors said that a “complex psychological-linguistic analysis of the texts determined that they contained public appeals for extremist activity and calls for civil disobedience to legal authorities, which incited citizens to violently change the constitutional regime, breach the Russian Federation’s integrity, and violently acquire powers of the president of Bashkortostan.”
In April 2006, the Kirov District Court in Ufa remanded Shmakov to custody for two months while the FSB and Interior Ministry conducted a joint probe into Dilmukhametov’s two articles published in Shmakov’s newspaper. The editor was released two weeks later, when the republic’s supreme court ruled that authorities did not have enough evidence to hold him on the grounds that he would continue his “extremist activities” and obstruct a criminal investigation.
“Extremism” is an umbrella term in Russian law. In successive years, Russia’s parliament has sharply contracted the boundaries of acceptable reporting by redefining laws against extremism. Criticizing public officials and covering dissenting views are now outside the limits of permissible journalism.
In September 2007, state prosecutors brought charges against prominent political analyst Andrei Piontkovsky over statements in his 2006 book Unloved Country, a collection of political essays critical of Putin and his policies. They said Unloved Country incited “inferiority among people of Jewish, American, Russian, and other nationalities.” Most recently, in June, the Moscow-based alternative English-language biweekly The eXile was forced to shut down after nervous investors withdrew support in the wake of a politicized audit of its content. The tabloid routinely criticized both the Kremlin and the West, using strong and irreverent language. On June 5, officers from Rossvyazokhrankultura, the state media regulatory agency, confiscated several issues carrying opposition leader Eduard Limonov’s work to check them for “extremism,” according to news reports.