Online journalist in Siberia faces defamation charges

New York, April 15, 2013–Prosecutors in Abakan, capital of the Republic of Khakassia in southern Siberia, should drop the criminal defamation charges against an online journalist, the Committee to Protect Journalists said today. News accounts are reporting that after four months of investigation, Mikhail Afanasyev’s case is moving to court, although no date has yet been set.

Prosecutors on March 14 filed insult and libel charges against Afanasyev, editor of the online magazine Novy Fokus, in connection with a December 9, 2012, opinion article, headlined “You are a liar, Colonel Zlotnikov!” The journalist said the official had lied about him in court.

Alexander Zlotnikov, the police official, had testified against Afanasyev about an episode on October 8 in which the journalist had attempted to record a police arrest. The colonel said Afanasyev had tried to obstruct police activities and, according to the journalist, said he had been violent and tried to push two pregnant bystanders under a car. Afanasyev was arrested on charges of hooliganism in connection with the episode. The case was later dismissed by a local court.

In his article, Afanasyev denied that he had attempted to push anyone and insisted that Zlotnikov had lied in court. The editor also criticized the official, calling him “immoral” and “capable of low deed.”

The day after the article was published, Zlotnikov filed a defamation complaint against the journalist with the regional investigative committee in Khakassia. Afanasyev was immediately summoned for questioning, and his home, office, and car were searched by police, according to news reports. Authorities opened a criminal investigation against the journalist in late December, which was concluded on March 14.

News accounts reported on March 14 that the prosecutor’s office issued a statement saying Afanasyev had “deliberately spread false information and discredited the honor, dignity and business reputation of the republic’s leadership.”

Defamation was decriminalized in December 2011, but the following year, President Vladimir Putin rolled back the reform and returned the law to the criminal code. The law, which press freedom advocates have said would be used to financially destroy the independent press, would also allow for the reopening of old cases against journalists and human rights defenders.

If convicted, Afanasyev faces a fine of one million rubles (US$32,161) in damages and would be subject to either 240 hours of community service or hard labor, as determined by the court, according to international and local press reports.

“Regional authorities are trying to punish Mikhail Afanasyev simply because he tried to stand up for his reputation in the face of criminal allegations that a court dismissed,” CPJ Europe and Central Asia Program Coordinator Nina Ognianova said. “In pursuing this case, they are sending a message that a government official’s honor means more than that of a citizen. This misguided case should be dropped immediately.”

Afanasyev has been targeted in the past with official retaliation because of his work with Novy Focus. In 2009, he was arrested on defamation charges for the paper’s coverage of a high-profile explosion at a hydroelectric plant in Russia. The charges were soon dropped after widespread protest by local and international press freedom and human rights groups. The same year, he was attacked and beaten by two unidentified assailants. The attack was never investigated.

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