Online journalist harassed, threatened in Moscow

New York, September 30, 2009Moscow police must immediately investigate and bring to an end a campaign of harassment orchestrated in part by a pro-Kremlin organization against online journalist Aleksandr Podrabinek, the Committee to Protect Journalists said today.

Podrabinek, 56, known for his sharp commentary on political and social issues, has gone into hiding after receiving a series of threats stemming from a September 21 commentary on the news Web site Yezhednevny Zhurnal that pointed out the human rights abuses of the Soviet government. Angered by Podrabinek’s piece, members of the pro-Kremlin youth group Nashi (Ours) have repeatedly harassed the journalist and his family, according to news accounts and CPJ interviews. Podrabinek wrote Monday on his personal blog, hosted by LiveJournal, that he fears for his safety.

“Harassing Aleksandr Podrabinek and his family is unacceptable,” said Nina Ognianova, CPJ’s Europe and Central Asia program coordinator. “Moscow authorities must guarantee the safety of Podrabinek and his family and take appropriate law enforcement action against those responsible for this harassment. In a democratic country, no journalist should have to go into hiding because of his work.”

Podrabinek’s ordeal started after he wrote an opinion piece that criticized local officials for pressuring a Moscow diner to remove a sign heralding its name, “Anti-Soviet.” The diner, which opened in July, had adopted its name as a tongue-in-cheek reference to its location across from the Hotel Soviet. But officials from the Moscow’s Northern District were not amused; they filed a complaint, purportedly on behalf of an organization of World War II veterans, saying the name was offensive.

Podrabinek, a former Soviet dissident and political prisoner who is now a prominent human rights defender, used sharp language in his piece to criticize veterans who pressured the diner. Podrabinek said they were seeking to polish the image of the Soviet Union while omitting its record of human rights abuses.

Soon after the article was published, members of Nashi pledged to picket Podrabinek’s home indefinitely for “defiling the honor of veterans,” the news agency Interfax reported. The head of Nashi, Nikita Borovikov, announced on Monday on the group’s Web site that Nashi would demand Podrabinek’s expulsion from Russia if the writer did not apologize. The group published Podrabinek’s home address.

Yezhednevny Zhurnal told CPJ that it has received anonymous threats suggesting violent action would be taken against Podrabinek and its own editors. The independent newspaper Novaya Gazeta, to which Podrabinek has contributed articles since 2005, reported online that several members of Nashi visited the paper’s offices and demanded to know Podrabinek’s whereabouts. The editors refused.

In an interview with Novaya Gazeta today, Podrabinek’s wife, Alla, said Nashi pickets have besieged the family’s home, repeatedly calling the family over the apartment building’s intercom and arriving at times at the apartment door.

Officials with the Moscow Department of Internal Affairs told Novaya Gazeta that picketing that involves more than two individuals must be approved by the local government. It is unclear whether Nashi has received approval.

“The state is obligated to defend Podrabinek,” veteran human rights advocate Lyudmila Alekseyeva told CPJ. “I know how difficult it is to receive a permission from authorities to hold a protest. And, here, Nashi is allowed to harass not only Podrabinek, but also his wife and children. By allowing this to happen, our state is sanctioning illegal, undemocratic actions,” Alekseyeva said.