Moscow court revokes news agency’s license

New York, October 31, 2013–The Committee to Protect Journalists is alarmed by a decision by the Moscow City Court today to revoke the license of independent online news agency Rosbalt and urges Russian authorities to overturn the ruling on appeal.

The state media regulator Roskomnadzor filed a motion with the court in early October to have the agency’s license revoked, accusing the agency of publishing videos with foul language, according to reports in the local and international press. (Rosbalt, a publication that often criticizes Russian authorities, regularly features videos to illustrate news stories on its website.)

President Vladimir Putin signed legislation in April amending the country’s media law and banning the use of foul language. The legislation allows Roskomnadzor to impose fines and seek the withdrawal of an outlet’s license for repeat violations.

A magistrate’s court in Moscow had earlier ordered Nikolai Ulyanov, Rosbalt’s chief editor, to pay a fine of 20,000 rubles (about US$600) for breaching the legislation. This penalty is on top of the news agency’s license withdrawal.

Rosbalt announced on its website today that its lawyers would be appealing the verdict before Russia’s Supreme Court, and said the newsroom would continue publishing until all its options had been exhausted.

News reports said the video clips at issue were originally published on YouTube. One of the clips featured a performance at an oil rig by the feminist punk rock band Pussy Riot, two members of which are currently serving prison terms on charges of “hooliganism motivated by religious hatred” in relation to an irreverent prayer performed at a church. The other clip depicted a car crash, captured by the dash camera of another vehicle, in which expletives can be heard in the background.

“We are deeply concerned about the steps taken to silence Rosbalt, which is one of the few news outlets in Russia that carries independent reporting and analysis,” CPJ Europe and Central Asia Program Coordinator Nina Ognianova said. “In three months, Russia will host hundreds of journalists from around the word for the Winter Olympics in Sochi. Cracking down on its own press is not a welcoming signal to the international media.”

Rosbalt argued that the video clips were republished–not created–by the news agency. In addition, Rosbalt’s video editor, Yevgeny Zubarev, said on the agency’s website that he had bleeped out the obscene language in the two videos after getting an initial warning by Roskomnadzor. Rosbalt eventually deleted both clips altogether, Reuters said, but Roskomnadzor continued its case against the agency.

Russian media and press freedom groups condemned the verdict. Pavel Gusev, head of the Moscow Journalists’ Union, said that the verdict set “a dangerous precedent that could have a chilling effect on press freedom in Russia,” according to the state news agency RIA Novosti.