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Crackdown on free speech continues with more arrests and harassment

(RSF/IFEX) - The Russian authorities continue to violate free speech even as US secretary of State Condoleezza Rice begins a three-day visit to Moscow and European Union representatives prepare to attend a summit in the Russian city of Samara on 17-18 May 2007, Reporters Without Borders said.

"We are outraged to see that even important international meetings do not prevent the political authorities from harassing leaders of the Other Russia coalition who are organising a protest march (although it has been authorised) and the journalists who have interviewed them," the press freedom organisation said. "This is a flagrant violation of human rights and civil liberties, and we urge all human rights activists to be especially vigilant in the coming months, which will be decisive for Russia's future."

Reporters Without Borders added: "The record of the last seven years confirms our conviction that Vladimir Putin is an enemy of press freedom. It is our duty to appeal for solidarity with Russian human rights activists and journalists so that they do not feel isolated. Their struggle must find support outside the country, starting with the European Union."

The toll of the past week in the city of Samara alone is very worrying. Three journalists working for the daily "Kommersant" and REN-TV were arrested on 10 May while interviewing Mikhail Gagan outside his apartment building. Gagan is one of the organisers of the "Dissenters' March" which Garry Kasparov's Other Russia and other anti-Kremlin groups plan to hold in Samara on 18 May as the summit is taking place there. After long negotiations, Samara city hall has finally given its permission for the march to take place.

The offices of the "Novaya Gazeta" newspaper and the Regnum news agency were searched twice on 11 May on the grounds that their journalists were using unlicenced software. Two journalists - including Sergei Kurt-Adzhiyev, the head of "Novaya Gazeta"'s Samara bureau - and two organisers of the 18 May march were arrested and held for four hours on 13 May.

It was reported on 14 May that a Moscow court has fined Garry Kasparov for "marching in a large group of people and shouting anti-government slogans" during the 14 April "Dissenters' March" in Moscow, at which he was arrested. The former world chess champion has announced that he will appeal to the European Court of Human Rights.

A change in the management of Russia's biggest independent broadcasting network, RSN, in mid-April has had a dramatic impact on press freedom. Alexandre Shkolnik, head of children's programming for the national TV station Pervy Kanal, and Vsevolod Neroznak, the station's news director, told staff that "at least 50 per cent" of the news they broadcast should be "good news."

Opposition members and representatives will no longer be welcome on RSN.

The "Dissenters' Marches" organised in March and April in Nizhny-Novgorod, Moscow and St. Petersburg were broken up by anti-riot police, who arrested journalists covering the marches as well as hundreds of demonstrators.

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