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Court strips national news agency of its licence

November 6, 2013

Reporters Without Borders is appalled by a Moscow court’s decision today to grant a request by the Federal Agency for the Supervision of Communications, Roskomnadzor, for the withdrawal of the news agency Rosbalt’s licence (see below).

“This grave decision sets an extremely dangerous precedent for freedom of information in Russia and we urge the judicial system to overturn it on appeal,” Reporters Without Borders said.

“Rosbalt has fallen victim not only to a repressive law with disproportionate penalties but also to absurd and unfair judicial proceedings. It has been punished for content it did not produce on the basis of inadmissible evidence, and before any court examined its appeals against the warning previously issued in this matter.”

Rosbalt’s CEO Larisa Afonina told Reporters Without Borders that the news agency would appeal against the closure order.

“They won’t silence us,” she said. “We will fight, not just for ourselves but also for the sake of common sense (…). If they can act like this with a news agency that has been established for 12 years and has 20 million readers a month, what will happen to other media?

“And you don’t even need to publish particularly critical articles to receive this kind of treatment. All you have to do is re-post content that others have posted online! (…) What happened today is evidence of the fact that freedom of expression is now under threat in Russia.”

31.10.2013 - National news agency threatened with closure over video swearwords

Reporters Without Borders is very worried by the legal action that the Federal Agency for the Supervision of Communications, Roskomnadzor, has brought against Rosbalt, one of Russia’s most popular news agencies, seeking the withdrawal of its licence. A Moscow court will begin considering the request today.

The lawsuit, which could have major implications for the media, is based on the fact that swearwords could be heard in two videos that Rosbalt posted on its website to illustrate articles. An April 2013 law amending article 4.1 of the media law and article 13.21 of the administrative offences code has banned use of “obscene language” in the media.

“Closing a news outlet just for posting content that included swearwords would be absurd and disproportionate,” Reporters Without Borders said. “If it complies with Roskomnadzor’s request, the court will be silencing a nationally renowned news agency and will set a very dangerous precedent for freedom of information in Russia.

“The consequences of the court’s decision cannot be underestimated. We urge the court to respect the principles of proportionality and impartiality and to reject this request. This case highlights the repressive potential of the many laws passed in recent months in the name of protecting children and social morals.

“Journalists are already often prosecuted on poorly supported charges of extremism or defamation. Now they can also be prosecuted for blasphemy, ‘homosexual propaganda’ or simply the use of swearwords. The increase in such broad and vague charges applicable to the media is all the more disturbing when the courts often act in such a partial and non-transparent manner.”

The two offending videos cited in the lawsuit were posted during the past summer. One, about the punk group Pussy Riot entitled “The girls have sung a new song” was posted on the Rosbalt site on 16 July. The other, entitled “Krasnodar guy,” shows a man with an axe being arrested.

Rosbalt said it took both videos from YouTube. The swearwords are uttered by the protagonists of the videos, not the news agency’s staff. Rosbalt complied immediately when Roskomnadzor requested the removal of the videos on 27 July.

The news agency was therefore amazed to learn at the start of October that Roskomnadzor had brought two complaints against it (one for each video) and was seeking nothing less than its closure.

Although it is seeking the most extreme form of sanction, the evidence that Roskomnadzor has submitted, two CD-ROMs, is far from solid. One is damaged and unusable. The other contains two videos dating from 2 October, although Rosbalt removed the offending videos in July.

Roskomnadzor apparently downloaded them from YouTube, where they are still available. The judges asked language experts to examine them.

Rosbalt’s lawsuit has been widely criticized in both journalistic and political circles. Both opposition parliamentarians and parliamentary representatives of the ruling United Russia party have accused Roskomnadzor of acting in an arbitrary manner.

The complaints have even been condemned by one of the authors of the law banning the use of swearwords in the media, Ilya Ponomarev, who said they “violate the spirit of the law” and were meant to send a warning to all the Russian media.

Despite the shaky evidence and the political support the news agency has received, Rosbalt editor Nikolai Ulyanov was already given two fines of 10,000 roubles on 25 October as a result of the two complaints.

For more information contact:
Reporters Without Borders
Phone: +33 1 44 83 84 84

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