Amnesty International and Russia’s stifled voices

By Lydia Aroyo, Europe and Central Asia Press Officer at Amnesty International, who recently returned from Moscow.

The press centre of the Russian Interfax news agency was rapidly filling up with journalists and the pile of press packs that we had prepared was quickly going down.

I felt overjoyed. The joint press conference Amnesty International had jointly organized with Human Rights Watch (HRW) was pulling in record crowds. The two organizations were going to present their respective reports, Freedom under threat and Laws of Attrition, exposing the ongoing assault on freedoms of expression, association and assembly in Russia – abuses that have gathered strength under the watch of President Putin in the first year of his third presidential term.

In 10 years of working with Amnesty International, involving frequent trips to Moscow to launch reports, I have never seen 10 cameras in one place at the same time, and was imagining how in the evening I would be flicking between channels and enjoying the coverage given to this joint effort by two human rights organizations to press home the message that freedom of expression is gradually been extinguished in Russia. I was hoping against all hope that the coverage of the two reports on Russian broadcasts, and in the print media, would prove that our view of the current situation was wrong.

Alas, a look at the registration list dampened my enthusiasm. True, the likes of Reuters, AP, Al Jazeera and ORF were there, but only two of the cameras belonged to Russian channels and none to NTV, for example, one of Russia’s biggest television stations. NTV in past years has done brilliant reports on Amnesty International briefings, but it is now helping the government slander human rights groups. Instead of publicizing what these non-governmental organizations (NGO) say, the station now follows tax inspectors and prosecutors when they raid the offices of these groups. NTV reporters were at the door of Amnesty International’s Moscow office together with the tax inspectors and the perfect time remains inexplicable if the inspecting officials are to be believed that the NTV’s arrival nothing to do with them. The only explanation can be that today they play a significant role in the effort of the authorities to stigmatise and discredit NGOs in the eyes of the public.

Readers of renowned broadsheets such as KommersantVedomosti and Novye Izvestya know that Amnesty International and HRW consider the real aim of Russia’s latest legal initiatives – such as the federal law on assemblies used to ban demonstrations and the “Dima Yakovlev law” that restricts the funding of NGOs from the US –  is to stifle prominent government critics. Its aim is to crush opposition voices, watchdogs and ordinary individuals who want to speak out on a wide range of issues.

Many voices have already been stifled. Those behind the murder of prominent investigative journalist Anna Politkovskaya have never been found nor their real motives have ever revealed. Those responsible for the abduction and murder in Grozny, Chechnya, of journalist and human rights activist Natalia Estemirova in 2009 have still not been brought to justice or even identified given that the provisional results of the official investigation raise more questions that they purport to answer. At the beginning of April Mikhail Beketov died. He was a Russian journalist who campaigned against government corruption and suffered brain damage from an attack in 2008. His attackers were never identified.

The press conference took place on the same day, 24 April, as the trial against opposition blogger and activist Aleksei Navalny resumed in Kirov, a city about 500 miles northeast of Moscow. Navalny, an anti-corruption whistle-blower is accused of embezzling US $510,000 worth of timber and faces up to 10 years in prison and a fine of 1 million rubles (US $32,000) if convicted. His case is reminiscent of others in the past which raised questions about political influence behind the charges and the independence of the courts.

None of this has come to the attention of wider TV audiences in Russia, where there seems little time for real news. In the early morning hours viewers are treated to news bulletins interspersed with cooking programmes. In the evening, they can enjoy the next instalment of a professionally made thriller series in which corrupt entrepreneurs bribe the upright director of a children’s home. The criminals want her to allow Russian children to be adopted by foreigners, while brave policemen uncover a plot by said foreigners to harvest children’s organs.

The highlight of one day, 25 April, was President Vladimir Putin’s live call-in show, where he answered questions from callers across the country. As he told the public that organizations exposing corruption and other violations should be valued, a Moscow court fined the independent NGO Golos (Voice) 300,000 rubles (almost US$10,000). It played a prominent role in organizing election monitoring and reporting allegations of electoral fraud in the 2011 parliament and 2012 presidential elections. It has now became the first Russian NGO to fall foul of the “foreign agents” law.

During his show, President Putin discussed government politics, international politics, and the economy both abroad and at home. He explained why some salaries are low and some products expensive. He promised to sort out the bureaucracy, to resolve housing problems, and to help everyone and any one.

After the show, the TV presenters informed the public that this was President Putin’s 11th call-in show and that it had lasted 4 hours and 47 minutes. Sadly though he appears not to have broken records established by Cuba’s Fidel Castro or former Libyan leader Muammar al-Gaddafi – otherwise we would have heard about it.

In the meantime, 18-25-year-old participants in a focus group, in answer to a question about what individuals can do about important issues, said that only someone who is in power can change a situation – and only if this individual is called Putin. Even then, the focus group do not think he can solve everything.

This is the state of Russia today – diminishing critical voices, diminishing role of civil society, a young generation deprived of belief in their own power to engineer change in society. And it will not change until the media once again start reporting serious news.

Read more:

Russia: President Putin’s witch hunt (News story/report, 24 April 2013)