Thursday, August 20, 2009

Window on Eurasia: Russian Internet Journalist Charged with Slander for Going beyond Official Reports

Paul Goble

Vienna, August 20 – Mikhail Afanasyev,editor of the Internet Journal “Novy focus,” has been charged with slander for distributing “intentionally false reports” about the Sayano-Shushen Dam disaster when prosecutors in the Khakass Republic say he was in full possession of “reliable and official information.”
The filing of these charges less than 24 hours after Afanasyev suggested on his site that officials were shifting their efforts too quickly from the search for survivors to the recovery of bodies demonstrate that Russian officials can move quickly when they want to control reporting about any event.
But they also call attention to a disturbing phenomenon, the increasing propensity of Russian law enforcement to draw on the legal norms of the Soviet past when the criminal code included provisions for bringing charges against anyone making “intentionally false slanderous declarations, which disparage the socialist system” (
Yesterday, prosecutors in Abakan filed charges against Afanasyev for distributing via the Internet reports he knew to be false because he had relied on sources other than the “official and reliable” information in his possession and as a result slandered others by accusing them of the commission of serious crimes (
In his online reporting beginning immediately after the accident on August 17, Afanasyev relied on the reports of eyewitnesses and stressed that he was recording the facts “in strict correspondence with the materials he had received and the explanations provided by eyewitnesses” (
Apparently, officials were especially infuriated by Afanasyev’s statement that some local people that officials were not doing enough to try to find their relatives who, these people said, possibly were surviving in air pockets and his suggestion that RusHydro and local officials were more interested in a cover-up than in a recovery (
Immediately after the accident, there was much confusion as to why it had happened, how many people had been killed or were missing, and what steps officials should take first. And this confusion was reflected not only in Internet journals but also in most independent Moscow news outlets as well.
But because the Russian authorities wanted to play down the extent of this tragedy and to send a message to bloggers who have become an ever more important source for news that too independent a stance will not be tolerated, the powers that be apparently decided to make an example of Afanasyev.
He was a suitable target for this effort because the “Novy focus” editor has clashed with officials before over his reporting and his involvement with opposition political groups. And consequently, the Abakan prosecutors moved quickly and brutally, not only bringing these Soviet-style charges against him but also confiscating his apartment keys and mobile phone.
In one comment on this case, Anton Nosik, the chief editor of the site, said that it showed just how low the level of legal consciousness remains among Russian prosecutors especially in the distant provinces, people who he suggested continue to be guided by the laws they learned as students in Soviet times (
The only hope in this case, he continued, is that the courts set to hear Afanasyev’s case and possible appeals will be “less thick-headed than the prosecutors,” but Nosik implied that this was a hope rather than a certainty given the desire of officials to cover up human losses in this case just as they did at the time of the Kursk submarine disaster.
And Vladimir Tyomny, another commentator, put the case against those who have brought one against Afanasyev even more bluntly. To the extent one can judge, he told “,” “the ‘crime’ of Mikhail Afanasyev is that he accused the powers that be of ineffective actions for saving people.”
It is hard to see that as slander, Tyomny suggested, but such charges are clearly about more than what Afanasyev did: They are intended to send a signal to all that Internet news coverage which has remained more free than the electronic or print sectors is going to receive ever more critical attention from the powers that be.

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