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Media representatives urge interior minister to end police arbitrariness

(GDF/IFEX) - 28 January 2010 - Journalists' detention while covering opposition-organized street protest actions has long become a routine. Moreover, police officers have generally been more active in going after reporters than protesters. According to GDF's data, a total of 75 journalists were detained in 2006, 140 in 2007, 78 in 2008, and 62 in 2009. This is understandable, as well - the law enforcers think it is very important to "neutralize" unwanted eyewitnesses to prevent leaks of information about protest actions roughly dispersed by the police. "They seize anyone trying to record what happens to citizens attempting to exercise their right to hold protest rallies and marches," says GDF President Alexei Simonov.

As a rule, journalists were brought to police stations and released after the protest actions were over. However, RIA Novosti news agency photo correspondent Andrei Stenin, detained on December 12 2009 while fulfilling an editorial assignment of covering unauthorized pickets outside the presidential administration headquarters in Moscow, was prosecuted as an "active participant" and sentenced to a fine of RUR 500.

According to police officers, Stenin did not have documents confirming that he is a journalist. Yet sources at RIA Novosti say the policemen ignored the journalistic ID card he showed them, together with the fact that he was carrying professional photo equipment and tried to explain his actions.

Stenin's colleagues are resolutely opposed to the court decision "passed on the basis of law enforcers' perjurious testimony that actually turned the journalists into hostages of police arbitrariness."

While imposing a conscientiously small fine (approx. US$20), the judge created an alarming precedent: instead of focusing on their professional work, journalists may now start wasting time in court defending themselves against totally irrelevant charges.

Concerned with this kind of situation, the managers of several media outlets have sent Russia's Interior Minister, Rashid Nurgaliyev, an open letter urging the top-ranking police chief to protect journalists and other ordinary citizens against arbitrary treatment. The message points out that "not only a journalist whose rights are protected under the Media Law but also any other Russian citizen, regardless of his/her profession or social status, may become the target of police arbitrariness backed by fact-juggling and perjury." On behalf of the journalistic community, the authors asked R. Nurgaliyev to "order an investigation and take steps to preclude a repetition in the future of this kind of flagrant violation of Russian people's rights and civil liberties guaranteed by the RF Constitution and other effective legislation."

Among the open letter's signatories are Kirill Kleimyonov (Channel One), Tatyana Mitkova (NTV), Marianna Maximovskaya (REN TV), Alexei Venediktov (Ekho Moskvy radio station), Svetlana Mironyuk (RIA Novosti), Mikhail Komissar (Interfax news agency), Dmitry Muratov (Novaya Gazeta), Valery Yakov (Noviye Izvestia), Tim Wall (The Moscow News), Konstantin Remchukov (Nezavisimaya Gazeta), and Pavel Gusev (Moskovsky Komsomolets).

However, the effectiveness of this appeal seems dubious. As early as January 21, Anna Usacheva, head of the Moscow City Court's press service, warned the public against "exerting pressure on the judges," and later in the day the RIA Novosti management recommended that Stenin should refrain from taking part in the Radio Liberty talk show where the court hearings were to be discussed.

In an interview for the web portal, Pyotr Godlevsky, general director of NTV-Peterburg, has expressed the view that "appealing to the Interior Minister is unlikely to help - particularly considering the long list of crimes committed by our law enforcers lately. Nurgaliyev does not seem to be willing even to have it out with his own subordinates, to say nothing of his starting to defend journalists."

One cannot but agree with that, now that many police officers' actions of late have been ever more like those of invaders in an occupied country.

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