New York, August 21, 2009–Prosecutors in Abakan, the capital of the Republic of Khakassia in southern Siberia, should drop their defamation charges against online editor Mikhail Afanasyev, the Committee to Protect Journalists said today. The charges are tied to a blog entry about Monday’s explosion at Russia’s largest hydroelectric plant that killed dozens of workers, according to news reports.
Prosecutors opened a criminal probe against Afanasyev on Wednesday, after he and his two colleagues at the online magazine Novy Fokus–Eric Chernyshov and Grigory Nazarenko–published a blog entry that challenged the Russian government’s response to the explosion at the Sayano-Shushenskaya power plant in Khakassia. If convicted, Afanasyev faces up to three years in prison. Chernyshev and Nazarenko have not been charged.
Russian officials and state-controlled media initially said that up to 15 workers died at the plant, but Afanasyev reported that up to 100 may have been killed, the Russian service of the U.S. government-funded Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty (Radio Svoboda) reported. As of today, the death toll was at 47, with 28 still missing, the news Web site Lenta reported.
Citing their own investigation, Afanasyev and his colleagues wrote that workers who were trapped in an underground room at the plant may still be alive, and offered different rescue measures. The journalists called on Russian bloggers and the press to distribute their report. Authorities confiscated the journalists’ computers, cell phones, and took Afanasyev’s apartment keys, Novaya Gazeta reported.
“Prosecuting a journalist for reporting on an industrial explosion is deeply disturbing and harkens back to a dark period of Soviet history when such accidents were covered up,” said CPJ Deputy Director Robert Mahoney. “Prosecutor should drop all charges against Mikhail Afanasyev immediately.”
Regional prosecutors said in official press release that Afanasyev is being charged with slander. Prosecutors said they have determined that Afanasyev “distributed knowingly false information that slandered the honor, dignity, and business reputation of the regional authorities and plant management.”
Afanasyev told Radio Svoboda he and his two colleagues interviewed families and colleagues of the power plant workers to determine the death toll.
The charges against the journalist came after a Wednesday interview Emergency Situations Minister Sergey Shoigu gave to the government-owned Rossiyskaya Gazeta, in which he said authorities should severely punish those “who spread panic in the region.”
Afanasyev has been at odds with regional authorities since 2003, and has previously faced criminal libel charges. In June 2007, he was attacked by at least two men who identified themselves as police officers and beat him. The assailants stole his ID, two cell phones and the jacket, but did not touch any other valuables, he told CPJ at the time.