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Monday, August 27, 2007

Annals of the Neo-Soviet Crackdown on Journalism

Just as we predicted it would, Russia is using its new so-called "law against extremism" to crack down not on racist hatred but on those who dare to challenge the Kremlin, most recently focusing its neo-Soviet ire on Vedomosti correspondent Valery Panyushkin. Robert Amsterdam warns:

The harassment of Panyushkin comes with suspicious timing, on the exact same day that we on the Mikhail Khodorkovsky defense team won a major landmark decision from the Swiss prosecutor which underscores the political nature of his persecution, and the illegitimacy of the Russian procuracy. Panyushkin, in addition to being a consummate professional journalist, covering not only democracy movements in Russia but also Belarus and the Ukraine, is also the author of the bestselling book about Mikhail Khodorkovsky entitled "Khodorkovsky: the Prisoner of Silence." It is furthermore tragically ironic that back in April, while reporting on the March of the Discontented, Panyushkin speculated that "most of the people who feel disgusted about the lies of Putin’s regime do not take to the streets, because they are afraid to be seen in the company of “extremists,” but this fear evaporates as the lack of freedom becomes suffocating." We can only hope that people like Panyushkin only feel more emboldened and inspired by these outrageous repressive acts.
The Wall Street Journal reports:

A prominent newspaper columnist said Russian police briefly detained him for questioning about suspected extremist activity, as critics charge a newly toughened law against extremism is being used to intimidate Kremlin critics. Valery Panyushkin, special correspondent at Vedomosti, a leading Russian business newspaper that is part-owned by Dow Jones & Co., the publisher of The Wall Street Journal, was the latest of several well-known commentators and activists who have been targeted under the law.

In what officials said was an effort to quash terrorism, amendments passed last year broadened the definition of extremism to include some forms of criticism of government officials. Penalties include prison terms, and the law allows courts to ban organizations and parties deemed extremist. Kremlin critics say the law is being used to muzzle or cripple opponents ahead of parliamentary elections in December and a presidential poll in March. Officials have denied that.

Mr. Panyushkin said an officer stopped him for questioning late Thursday as he prepared to board a train for a business trip to a city in southern Russia. Mr. Panyushkin said the officer didn't specify the grounds for suspecting him of violating the law against extremism and let him board the train once he had signed a statement that he wasn't a member of any extremist organization. A police spokesman said he couldn't immediately comment on the incident.

"It's incomprehensible to me on what grounds and by whom Valery could be suspected of violating that law," said Tatyana Lysova, editorial director at Vedomosti. "He's just a journalist."

Mr. Panyushkin, 38 years old, writes about business and politics, and his columns have frequently attacked the Kremlin's crackdown on dissent and political opposition. He was among a number of journalists arrested in Moscow this spring while attempting to cover an opposition march led by former chess champion Garry Kasparov that was violently subdued by riot police.

On Friday, a Moscow court put off a hearing for a month in another case involving the extremism law. Moscow prosecutors have asked the court to declare extremist a book by Andrei Piontkovsky, a political analyst and member of the Yabloko liberal opposition party. The book, "Unloved Country," is a collection of Mr. Piontkovsky's columns, many of them critical of President Vladimir Putin. Mr. Piontkovsky had asked for the delay so he would be able to return from the U.S., where he is a visiting fellow at the Hudson Institute, a Washington think tank.

In a related case, a court in the southern city of Krasnodar upheld an official warning from prosecutors to the local branch of the Yabloko party for distributing extremist literature that cited two of Mr. Piontkovsky's books. Yabloko is appealing that ruling. If prosecutors prevail, the local branch of Yabloko could be shut down.

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