Oleg Panfilov is the director of the Center for Journalism in Extreme Situations (CJES), founded in 2000 by the Russian Union of Journalists in order to defend media freedoms in the Russian Federation.
Maria Trombly recently met with him in Paris to talk about the issues facing Russian journalists today.
QUESTION: What republic is the worst for journalists today?
ANSWER: In Turkmenistan, the only press is the government press. There is no other press at all. In Uzbekistan, there are very few independent papers and very strong government propaganda. There are countries where the government puts a lot of pressure on journalists. That’s Belarus, Kyrgyzstan, Kazakhstan and Azerbaijan. Ukraine is also difficult for journalists to work in, but it’s a large country, and there are areas where it’s OK, and places where it’s difficult – the same problems as in Russia.
QUESTION: What can American media and the SPJ do to help journalists in the former Soviet republics?
ANSWER: We work with a number of American organizations. We work with the CPJ (New York-based Committee to Protect Journalists). I used to direct the Moscow bureau of the CPJ. We also have good relationships with American journalists based in Moscow. U.S. organizations also finance our work – Soros, MacArthur Foundation, National Endowment for Democracy (NED), U.S. AID for several years running, and we have received grants from the U.S. embassy in Russia. We have a good relationship with the American embassy, and I meet occasionally with the ambassador.
QUESTION: What’s the size of the Center?
ANSWER: We have 40 people working on staff, 13 people in Moscow and the rest are correspondents or experts in Russia and the countries of the former Soviet Union. We have experts in pretty much every conflict area, including Karabakh, Trans-Dniester and Abkhazia. We have a lot of volunteers, too – over 20, probably the only organization that still has volunteers. We also have relationships with InterNews, the Institute Problemy Informatsionnogo Prava (Institute for Information Law Issues) and the Independent Institute for Communication. There are also other organizations in the Russian regions that we have good relationships with, though there are relatively few such organizations. In Russia, there are about 300,000 journalists, and those journalists that live far from Moscow don’t have anyone to help them.
QUESTION: What about the Russian Union of Journalists?
ANSWER: Our organization is a part of the Union. But, in the Union itself, there are still a lot of Soviet traditions.
QUESTION: Does the Russian Union of Journalists have a legal defense fund?
ANSWER: No, but it would be very good if we could get some money to pay for the work of lawyers. But, so far, there have been no opportunities to do that. We would like to work together with the SPJ if your organization is interested in it.
QUESTION: Do you write friend-of-the-court briefs?
ANSWER: No. They don’t exist in Russia.
QUESTION: Does Russia have a Freedom of Information Act?
ANSWER: In the CIS (Commonwealth of Independent States), Uzbekistan and Tajikistan have FOIA laws as such, but not Russia. But even in Russia, according to the Law on Access to Information, you can file a written request and the official must respond within a month. We think the majority of problems can be avoided if journalists knew the laws. Often, journalists who want some information go to the official, and if the official says no, the majority just turn around and go home. And when we ask, “Why do you do that?”, they say, “We don’t know what to do next.” Another problem that arises is when someone files a lawsuit because the journalist doesn’t know how to verify the facts. He can write anything he wants, but if he can’t defend himself in court, there will be problems. One of the things we do is teach journalists how to check the sourcing of their information. Then, even if a court finds against the journalist, he can appeal to a higher court.
QUESTION: Is the FOI law used in Uzbekistan and Tajikistan?
ANSWER: Unfortunately, no. Journalists for the most part don’t know about this law. We have a project, financed by NED, together with Tajik partners, and we have begun a cycle of educational seminars for journalists and officials. The seminars are half and half – half court workers, for example, and half press. Or half are journalists and the other half are employees of press services of various departments. We try to teach them that there is such a law, and that they should use it. But the problem of legal illiteracy is widespread in the CIS. About 90 percent of all journalists in the CIS are journalists who have never read a single law, and very frequently when there’s a lawsuit, they call on us and say, ‘They filed suit against us, please help us.’ And when we ask them if they know which law they are being tried under, they usually say no. We help between 40 and 50 journalists a month with various questions. However, we can’t assist directly in legal cases because you need a licensed lawyer, and we don’t have one in our office. We do sometimes consult in civil actions – and, once, I acted as a public defender in a criminal case – not as an attorney but a public defender, there is such a category.
In Uzbekistan, there are seven laws, even a law called Professional Defense of Journalists. But none of these laws really work because journalists don’t know how to use them. If they used all these laws, if they knew the laws and what they’re allowed to do, then maybe Uzbekistan would see some positive changes.
QUESTION: Is there a Russian guide to libel law, such as the AP Stylebook guide in the United States?
ANSWER: There were some attempts to do something of the sort, but printed in very small numbers. But you have to remember that 15 years ago, they were all Soviet journalists, and some 80 percent are still old Soviet journalists who have never worked with any laws because there were no laws. We would be happy to print such a guide however, but it’s a question of money.
QUESTION: The Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE), at a conference co-sponsored by the French organization Reporters Without Borders, passed a resolution calling for the decriminalization of libel. This is a problem in Russia and the other countries of the Commonwealth of Independent States. What do you hope to see happen?
ANSWER: The only hope is that the OSCE will take these commendations and try to influence the CIS countries into following them.
QUESTION: Is moral pressure enough?
ANSWER: I don’t see any other mechanism for pressure on countries like Russia. Only international organizations can put pressure on, because the journalists living in these countries are very passive, don’t have much solidarity and have a hard time understanding the need to defend one another. When we teach journalists how to protect their rights, legally, or through protest actions, journalists do it very rarely. We were surprised because there were about 80 such actions in 2002, and in 2003, only 10 actions like collecting signatures, holding protests or filing countersuits. The mechanism of citizen pressure on the government isn’t there in Russia or in the other former Soviet republics, or if it exists, it’s barely noticeable. The only mechanism to put pressure on the government is through international organizations.
QUESTION: Does the Russian media cover these issues?
ANSWER: Russian journalists don’t write about it anymore. Instead, we ask foreign journalists to cover it. For example, for the fact that (journalist) Olga Kitova, from Belgograd, wasn’t put in prison, you have to thank the German television company ARID which spent days in that city with a satellite dish and filed reports right from the court. The government got scared, and the TV channel ARID made a documentary about her and put up a Web site about her. The Russian government doesn’t pay attention to protests by their own journalists. That’s why the only option to change something is the influence of the international community and, in the first place, international organizations. We have to keep reminding the Russian government that it is part of the OSCE, part of the European Council, and that is has obligations before these organizations.
QUESTION: To what degree does the Russian government pay attention to international organizations?
ANSWER: Sometimes it does, but, more often, it doesn’t. International organizations often wait for the population itself to protest, and the population doesn’t protest. Chechnya is a good example – there’s been a war for nine years. Are there mass protests in Moscow? No. The population is silent.
QUESTION: Why is that?
ANSWER: Because it is still a Soviet population. They are still Soviet people. They still think that the government will do what it wants and will never listen to the people.
QUESTION: What will the CJES do with the libel law recommendations?
ANSWER: We will publicize them. We have our own site, which is pretty popular in Russia, and we have a distribution list, which goes out to about 5,000 people around the world. In addition, our information is received by regional press, and they often publish what we print. We also have bulletins, and every day we send out up to 150 reports about what happens to journalists in Russia and other former Soviet republics.
Maria Trombly is a freelance writer.
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