Grigory Pasko never set out to be a crusader for press freedom. But that is what the former naval officer became when the Russian secret security services arrested him and slapped him in jail on espionage charges in November 1997. Nearly four years later, he is still fighting for his freedom, and for the right of Russian journalists to work without interference from the state. Pasko was an investigative reporter with Boyevaya Vakhta (Battle Watch), a newspaper published by the Russian Pacific Fleet. A career navy officer and military journalist, he worked in the fleet’s home port of Vladivostok in the remote Far East. In 1993, he filmed a Russian navy tanker dumping radioactive waste in the Sea of Japan, footage which was later shown on local Russian television and on the Japanese TV network NHK. In a series of articles published in Boyevaya Vakhta, and in the Japanese daily Asahi Shimbun, Pasko went on to expose the fleet’s illegal dumping of liquid and solid nuclear waste off the coast of Vladivostok. He wrote about the threat that the environmental hazards posed to the public’s health and claimed that high-level corruption in the naval command and a shortage of money was responsible for the practice. FSB operatives arrested Pasko on charges of treason and passing classified documents to Japanese agents. He spent nearly 20 months in prison awaiting trial, and was finally acquitted of treason in July 1999. He received a three-year sentence for abusing his authority as an officer, but was released under an amnesty program. The story could have ended there, but Pasko resolved to seek full acquittal and appealed the verdict. His determination was fuelled by a growing sense that Russia’s hard-won gains in free speech were under attack, and that he had a duty to defend his colleagues: “This is my work, my conviction, and I am convinced of victory,” he says. “If I fail in this, then I shall harm other journalists who pursue their profession with courage. I must demonstrate that it is possible to be professional and not to have fear of the KGB or prison.” Many Russian journalists and environmentalists have good reason to fear. The New York-based Committee to Protect Journalists has catalogued an alarming assault on press freedom since President Vladimir Putin came to power in March 2000. A new atmosphere of secrecy pervades under the former KGB chief, in which loyalty to the state is paramount. Journalists who go against the Kremlin line are branded traitors, whether their subject is Chechnya or environmental hazards. Professor Alexei Yablokov, president of the Center for Russian Environmental Policy in Moscow, says Pasko is an outstanding environmental journalist – and the first to reveal data about the Pacific Fleet’s illegal polluting of the seas. For many years, Yablokov advised the Yeltsin government on environmental issues, and he is alarmed by ever increasing restrictions on the public’s right to information. “Secrecy about the environment is growing fast. Putin is associated with the police state, and the Pasko case matters because only the rise of a civil society can prevent that from happening,” he said. Yablokov works closely with the environmentalist Alexander Nikitin, who suffered an almost five-year-long persecution. Nikitin was arrested in 1996 and charged with treason for contributing to a Norwegian environmental group’s report on the Northern Fleet’s mishandling of its nuclear waste. He was acquitted in December 1999, after an international campaign spearheaded by Bellona, the Norwegian group. The Nikitin and Pasko cases send “a strong warning” to Russian journalists, according to Alexei Simonov, president of the Glasnost Defense Foundation in Moscow. “Their fate is a vivid example of what will happen to those who seek to expose that which the state would like to keep secret,” he said. In Vladivostok, the military prosecutors were determined to put Pasko back behind bars, and they, too, pushed for a retrial. In November 2000, the Russian Supreme Court cancelled the court’s verdict, saying that its decision was “incomplete, biased and ill-founded.” This time around Pasko is not in jail, though his passport has been confiscated and he has no possibility to work. International PEN has taken up Pasko’s cause, since the journalist is also a poet and author of short stories. Amnesty International adopted him as a prisoner of conscience, and press freedom groups in Russia and throughout the world are highlighting his case. The retrial was eventually set for June 2001, and I was part of a delegation from the Committee to Protect Journalists that flew to Vladivostok to observe the opening of proceedings. At 10 a.m., we arrived at the Military Court, only to be informed that the trial was postponed. Along with Pasko’s lawyers, we denounced the delay as a tactic designed to wear down defense resources and morale. At a press conference later that day, Pasko told reporters: “I’m tired of this process. I want this disgraceful case to end as soon as possible. Everyone already knows that there are no spies and no crimes in this affair.” The trial finally got under way on July 11 and is expected to last until at least the end of October. Like the first, it is being held in secret in a military court, raising questions about its independence and impartiality. If convicted, Pasko faces a sentence of 12 to 20 years in prison, and the journalist, now 39, is guarded about the outcome of proceedings. Thousands of miles from Moscow in the once closed city of Vladivostok, a battle is being waged. On one side are those who believe Russia’s national security is under threat from within, and on the other those who believe citizens have a right to know when officials are breaking laws and people’s health is endangered. The outcome of the trial will have far-reaching consequences not only for the future of press freedom in Russia, but also for its hopes for democracy.
Emma Gray is a Europe and Central Asia program consultant for the Committee to Protect Journalists.