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Friday, January 18, 2008

Annals of the Neo-Soviet Crackdown on Journalism: Tell the Truth, go to Prison

The Moscow Times reports:

Coining a new word can carry a heavy price these days.

A Vladimir television journalist faces a hefty fine or even prison time after referring to a local meeting of supporters of President Vladimir Putin as a "puting" and the supporters as "Putinists." Local prosecutors questioned the journalist, Sergei Golovinov, on Monday as part of an investigation into whether his use of the two words on his program on TV-6 Vladimir television had insulted a public official -- a crime punishable by a fine of up to 40,000 rubles ($1,600) or a year of forced labor. The prosecutors are acting on a Dec. 4 complaint filed by Mikhail Babich, a State Duma deputy who headed United Russia's campaign headquarters in Vladimir, a city about 200 kilometers east of Moscow. They opened the investigation after a Russian language expert at Nizhny Novgorod Linguistic University ruled a week ago that the words were indeed offensive.

Mikhail Grachyov, the Russian language professor at Nizhny Novgorod Linguistic University who was asked to analyze Golovinov's program, refused to say why he had decided the words were offensive. "This is not for a telephone conversation. I don't have the right to elaborate," he said by telephone from Nizhny Novgorod. Golovinov said the words were commonly used on the Internet and in other Russian media. "We were not the first one to use them," Golovinov said by telephone from Vladimir.

In his introduction of a report about a meeting of Putin supporters held several days before the Dec. 2 Duma elections, Golovinov said the "most memorable pictures of the week" had been taken at a "Vladimir-style puting" -- a merger of the words "Putin" and the Russian word for demonstration, miting. "Putin's fans in Vladimir got together ... and with a tremendous ovation backed the thesis that Russia is surrounded by enemies," Golovinov said on the report. "The paranoid fear of loyal Putinisty [Putinists] toward a difference of opinion needs no comment," he said. Golovinov said by telephone that he had done nothing wrong. "Putin's supporters have the right to express their feelings toward the president, but we journalists have the right to comment on it," he said.

The word "puting" has a wide range of meanings in contemporary Russian. It is used by Russian journalists, commentators and bloggers to indicate societal changes brought on by Putin. Stanislav Belkovsky, a Kremlin spin doctor turned analyst, has often used "puting" to describe economic changes initiated by Putin, while satirist Mikhail Zadornov uses it to underline the restrictions that Putin has introduced to society. Yelena Tregubova, who in 2003 published "Tales of a Kremlin Digger," a tell-all book of her experience covering the Kremlin, titled one chapter "Light Puting" -- which sounds like "Light Petting."

In recent months, as many demonstrations were held in support of Putin during the Duma campaign, the word has acquired the new meaning of "a big gathering in support of Putin."

"There is nothing offensive in this word. It is just spoken language, a neologism," said Marina Korolyova, host of the linguistic program "Let's Speak Russian" on Ekho Moskvy radio.

There is no entry for "Puting" in Russian dictionaries, but a search on Yandex, the top Russian search engine, returned 24,511 hits. The word got 11,800 hits on Google.

In addition to being called Putinists, supporters of the president are also often referred to as "Putinoidy" (Putinoids). Three Moscow-based linguists refused to comment for this report, saying they feared trouble from the authorities if they gave their point of view. Babich will not comment on the issue while it is being investigated, said his spokesman, Alexander Dementyev. Golovinov said he believed that Babich had disliked the overall report and used the two words as a pretext to punish him. In the report, he alternated scenes from the Putin meeting with snippets of a speech by Andrei Isayev, a Duma deputy with United Russia, in Vladimir in which he warned that "dangerous and strong enemies" opposed "the president's course." The report also showed footage of Jews, Caucasus natives and ethnic Russians performing folk dances. "It was a video montage commonly used in television," Golovinov said.

The chief investigator of the case, Yury Yevtukhov, said a copy of the program would be sent to a Moscow commission of linguists who will have the last word in deciding whether the words are insulting, Ekho Moskvy reported.

Other journalists have also found that tinkering with Putin's name and image can prove risky. A newspaper in Saratov, Saratovsky Reporter, is facing possible closure after the local branch of United Russia complained to prosecutors in September about a photograph it had published that showed Putin's face pasted onto the body of fictional Soviet spy hero Otto von Stirlitz. In October 2006, Ivanovo journalist Vladimir Rakhmankov was convicted of insulting a public official and fined 20,000 rubles for referring to Putin as the "phallic symbol of the nation" in an opinion piece in the Internet publication Kursiv.

Oleg Panfilov, head of the Center for Journalism in Extreme Situations, said a system of "judicial terrorism" had started against journalists under Putin and that more than 300 criminal cases had been opened against them over the past six years. "Russia has been criticized by the OSCE and the Council of Europe about the way the law is used to silence journalists, but the criticism has been useless," he said. Panfilov said he knew of instances when printers have refused to publish newspapers because they contained caricatures of Putin.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

Someone please tell me this is a joke! Does this mean Russophobe's friend in South Africa with the REALLY GREAT cartoons is liable to get himself extradited to face charges. Obviously the Kremlin is even more paranoid than previously thought. As for Putin being a "phallic symbol of a nation", well he's shorter than Bush...I'll leave it at that.