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9/4/03 - LACK OF PRESS FREEDOM IN RUSSIA - 2003-09-04

Press freedom continues to erode in Russia. Russian journalist German Galkin was sentenced last month to one year in a labor camp for allegedly libeling two deputy governors of the Chelyabinsk region. Mr. Galkin is the publisher of Rabochaya Gazeta and deputy chief editor of Vecherny Chelyabinsk, both opposition newspapers.

The articles in question told of spending by the Chelyabinsk regional government that included the purchase of expensive cars and the creation of a pro-government television channel ahead of gubernatorial elections in 2005. The articles also mentioned a string of assassinations of local politicians and businessmen in the early 1990s.

Russia’s libel laws are often used as a pretext for silencing media critical of the government. In February 2002, a Moscow court ordered the newspaper Novaya Gazeta to pay a fine of thirty-million rubles after it had been found guilty of defaming Krasnodar district court official, Alexandr Chernov. In an editorial, the newspaper had condemned what it said was Chernov’s luxurious lifestyle.

Alex Lupis of the Committee to Protect Journalists says Mr. Galkin’s conviction is bad news for press freedom in Russia:

“The Committee to Protect Journalists believes Galkin’s conviction should be overturned and that the parliament should repeal Russia’s antiquated criminal defamation law.”

Freimut Duve, a representative of the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe, said, “In a democracy, writing about the activities of public servants is part of a journalist’s professional duties. It is my belief that no special protection should be given to public officials, who need to exercise a greater level of tolerance toward criticism than ordinary citizens.”

Mr. Galkin’s harsh sentence is likely to have a chilling effect on freedom of expression in Russia. This is especially unfortunate as the country gears up for parliamentary elections in December and presidential elections in early 2004. For the sake of democracy in Russia, it is critical that Mr. Galkin’s conviction be overturned and that the rule of law be respected.