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Monday, October 29, 2007

The Barbaric Neo-Soviet Crackdown on Freedom of Information

The New York Times reports:

THE men who attacked Ivan Y. Pavlov [pictured above] waited beside his car outside his home.

They knocked him over from behind, stomped him and kicked him in the head. None of them spoke. They stole nothing. As Mr. Pavlov lay curled defensively on the street, they trotted away. Then they tried to run him over with their car. Mr. Pavlov rolled clear, he said. The car sped off. “It was my good luck that there were four of them,” he said recently, recalling the attack in 2006 with a mix of drollness and lawyerly precision. “They were pushing each other out of the way to kick me and got in each other’s way.” Mr. Pavlov was hospitalized for a week. The police later told him the attack appeared to be related to his work — a mission to pry open stores of government information that he says are essential to Russian public life and that by law should be in the public domain, but are kept from view by corruption and apathy.

The battle for personal and political freedom in Russia is often framed as a contest between the Kremlin and its critics over the rights of assembly, speech and suffrage, and for an independent judiciary, legislature and media. Mr. Pavlov leads a quieter but still dangerous campaign: legal battles for what he calls, simply, “the right to know.” As the director of the Institute for Information Freedom Development, a private organization he founded in 2004, he strives to teach government agencies that stores of information in their possession — manufacturing and sanitary standards, court records, licenses, fire codes, public tenders, administrative decrees, agency phone directories, registries of public and private organizations — should be made available for all to view.

HIS work is necessary, he and his supporters say, because much of the basic information of governance in Russia has never been made public, even after the Constitution codified the public’s right to nonsecret information in 1993. It is a peculiar form of dysfunction. Information that was once sealed off from the public by Soviet policies of secrecy is now withheld by government insiders looking to profit from their positions. “There are people in every agency who want to sell their information, not give it away for free,” Mr. Pavlov said. “It is an element of ordinary corruption.” The police said his near-fatal beating was an example of racket protection. At the time he was attacked, Mr. Pavlov was seeking to force a state agency to publish the standards used to regulate services and products manufactured in Russian factories.

By law, manufacturers and service providers must follow the standards or risk punishment for noncompliance. In practice, the archive of standards is sold piecemeal by private firms that Mr. Pavlov says are connected to the agency that creates them. It was after Mr. Pavlov sued to require standards to be posted on a free government Web site that he was attacked. He returned to court upon being discharged from the hospital, and a judge eventually forced the government to post new standards on the Internet. Gary Schwartz, a director of the Tides Foundation, a private philanthropic organization in San Francisco that has helped underwrite Mr. Pavlov’s institute, said his campaign “is critical for the way civil society will develop in Russia.”

Mr. Pavlov, for his part, speaks of the standards battle as a matter of iron principle. “This information was made by taxpayers’ money,” he said. “So you cannot sell it back. Like I told the court: you cannot sell me my shirt. I already own it.”

Mr. Pavlov, tall and lean, with a self-assured and intense bearing, took a roundabout route to his current line of work. He graduated from an electro-technical university in St. Petersburg in 1992 and finished his law studies in 1997. From 1998 until 2004 he was a director at Bellona, an environmental organization that has fought with Russia about nuclear secrecy and pollution. In time he realized that secrecy itself was a more fundamental problem, one that was largely ignored. “Nobody defended the basic right — the right to know, to have access to information,” he said. “People cannot have their freedom, and realize all their other rights, without this right.”

The standards case was a significant and symbolic victory, but small in scale. In addition to such officially sanctioned businesses, black-market sales of government information remain profligate. The scams extend into the most public of government offices. In 2006, the institute forced a Russian embassy in a foreign capital to stop selling its passport application forms for 50 euros, or almost $75. To release more public materials and combat such trade, Mr. Pavlov says he has more lawsuits in store, which will be filed in November. His goals include the release of all official information at the federal statistics service, a database of Russian pollution sources in the air and water, the filings and registry of Russian corporations and organizations, all product certifications and a database of all decrees issued by ministers in the federal and regional governments. “We will do everything to make this information available for the broad public,” Mr. Pavlov said.

His supporters say the litigation might eventually help the Russian government escape its ossified past and strengthen Russia’s public administration and business climate. “A strong and consolidated authoritarian state does ultimately need the rule of law,” said Thomas S. Blanton, director of the National Security Archive at George Washington University, which collaborates with the institute Mr. Pavlov founded. “High oil prices cannot sustain the state. What he is doing is common-sense good government.”

MR. PAVLOV said that for his campaign to succeed he would need official support. He casts his work not as confrontational, but as a law-based effort to coach Russia to live up to its constitutional promise. “We do not blindly work against the government,” he said. “We do not stage demonstrations that provoke confrontations between the power and the people.” He makes clear, however, that his work can be frightening. One reaction after his beating was to buy and carry a four-shot pistol known as the “osa,” or wasp. (The pistol fires only rubber bullets and is designed to stun, not kill.) He recently stopped carrying it — “I was wearing light clothing in summer, and the osa was heavy and hard to hide,” he said — but has applied for a grant from the Russian government to hire a bodyguard for himself and his staff of nine.

Whether or not Russia decides to protect the institute, Mr. Pavlov said, its work will go on. “Unfortunately in Russia, there are many people who do not care about anything,” he said. “Our job is not to win all of the cases, or to force the government to publish all of the information, but to show people that they have rights. “Civil rights are like a muscle,” he added. “If you don’t use them, they will atrophy.”

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