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Saturday, June 03, 2006

Now the Cowardly Neo-Soviet Kremlin Goes After the Satirists

Just as Mikhail Zoshchenko was persecuted in the USSR, Radio Free Europe reports that Comrade Putin has turned his attention, following the arrest of five opposition elected officials including a governor, three senators and a mayor, to the destruction of satirists. Welcome to the Neo-Soviet Union.

When Russian prosecutors opened a criminal case against journalist Vladimir Rakhmanov for writing a satirical Internet article calling President Vladimir Putin the nation's "phallic symbol," it raised eyebrows. But a case that began as an odd curiosity in Russia's Ivanovo Oblast is quickly becoming an international cause. Reporters Without Borders has taken up Rakhmankov's case as part of what it calls a campaign to preserve Internet press freedom in Russia and elsewhere in the former Soviet Union. With print and broadcast journalism already subject to heavy-handed state control, free-press advocates are increasingly looking to save the Internet as the region's last censorship-free zone.

PRAGUE, June 2, 2006 (RFE/RL) -- Rakhmankov's article comparing Putin to a phallic symbol wasn't the first time the online journalist has irritated the authorities. In March, he accused Ivanovo Governor Mikhail Men of taking bribes. In an interview with RFE/RL's Russian Service, Rakhmankov said the official response was violent. Violent Past "I was invited to the Ivanovo Oblast government press service," Rakhmankov said. "I was met there not by the press secretary or by other employees of the press service, but by a security guard. He didn't say one word. He just started to beat me. He punched me three times in the stomach, then he screamed at me and asked who ordered the article."

Back in 2002, Rakhmankov received another beating, over an article that got a local police chief fired for corruption. But when Rakhmankov wrote an article last month parodying Putin's appeal to reverse Russia's demographic decline, Ivanovo authorities tried another tactic -- shutting down his website (, searching his apartment, and confiscating his computers. Local prosecutors have also charged Rakhmankov with "insulting a representative of the state." He is under house arrest and he could face up to a year of hard labor if found guilty. The whole matter might have ended there with little outside intervention. But the Paris-based watchdog group Reporters Without Borders saw in Rakhmankov's case an opportunity to make a stand for press freedom in Russia.

Last Refuge

Increasingly, free-press advocates see the Internet as the last censorship-free haven in Russia. "The only way to publish independent information in this country is to use the Internet," explained Julien Pain, head of the Internet Freedom Bureau of Reporters Without Borders. "That is why this case is so important. When the Russian authorities have the same control over the Internet as they have over traditional media then I think Russia will be in real trouble." Last year, Reporters Without Borders published a report identifying 15 so-called "Internet black holes" -- countries where the Internet faces the harshest restrictions. Three former Soviet states made the list -- Belarus, Uzbekistan, and Turkmenistan. By comparison, the Internet is still relatively free in Russia. But according to Pain, that could be about to change. "Belarus, Uzbekistan, Turkmenistan -- all these countries filter the Internet extensively," Pain said. "And so far in Russia the Internet is quite free. And we have to admit, that's because Russian authorities so far haven't dedicated too much effort on controlling the Internet. But this is about to change, and that is why we have to talk about it now." Russian lawmakers have been discussing ways to control Internet content for years.

Climate Of Fear

But even in the absence of legislation, authorities can still use what Reporters Without Borders called a "climate of fear" to intimidate hosting companies and Internet service providers. Rakhmankov's site, for example, was shut down not by the authorities but by the hosting company, which claimed that he had not paid his bills -- even though the site was hosted free of charge. Speaking on the RFE/RL Russia Service program "Press Time" on May 24, attorney Vladimir Entin, one of the authors of Russia's media law, defended the authorities' prosecution of Rakhmankov. "The head of state is a subject of national pride, in the same way that the flag and the coat of arms and other symbols of the state are, and requires similar respectful relations," Entin said. But speaking on the same program, Rakhmankov retorted that the president has no special right to be sheltered from insult. He added that if the case must be prosecuted, it should be subject to civil litigation rather than criminal law. "I think that in this case, it is not right to distinguish the head of state from an ordinary citizen," Rakhmankov said. "And I do not agree that the president is a symbol, like the flag or the coat of arms. And insofar as people have their own opinions about where the line is between insults and irony, such a thing needs to be investigated under the provisions in civil law for the defense of one's honor and dignity." No trial date has yet been set for Rakhmankov's trial. Investigators, meanwhile, have hired a so-called "linguistic expert" to assess the gravity of the insult to President Putin.

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