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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

ESSAY: Authorities Want the Final Word on Rights




Over the last turbulent decade, two social institutions crystallized that, until now, stubbornly resisted the intentions of the authorities to usurp citizens' rights and forced those in power to glance, at least from time to time, at the law. These institutions are the free mass media and the so-called "third sector," the independent non-governmental organizations.


Undoubtedly, the most substantial achievements of our fragile democracy are in no small part due to journalists. Beginning with perestroika, the media conquered the airwaves at a second's notice, dashing ahead and forcing society to catch up with the level of freedom they had achieved. Because civil society was underdeveloped and public opinion eroded, the media weren't able to directly influence government decisions - but it was nevertheless too late for the authorities to ignore them.


The government unleashed a concentrated attack on journalists at the beginning of the first Chechen war. It aimed to turn television, press and radio into official megaphones - and it failed. The "fourth estate," on the whole, stood up for its independence. Journalists continued to report on Russia's barbaric means of waging war and about the authorities' massive violations of the rights of both Chechen civilians and Russian soldiers - despite absurd accusations that the media was "on Dudayev's take."


How quickly things have changed, especially over the past few months. One need only try a brief experiment to see how much: For three days, read only newspapers, and over the following three days watch only television and listen to the radio. It will seem as if you have spent three days in different countries - or under different regimes. Many central publishers - and even some regional ones - still print news and commentary that give readers a more or less objective opinion on critical events, including the war in the Caucasus. At the same time, radio and television openly ignore people's constitutional right to have information about the actions of their state agencies, offering only heavily pro-government coverage of the war.


We have long ago come to terms with the fact that regional TV and radio are fully controlled by local political elites and that the central stations exist mainly as tools in the battles and games of the oligarchs. Nevertheless, a few years ago, NTV had a deserved reputation as being the most objective and detailed news source - at least in matters not concerning Moscow Mayor Yury Luzhkov - in the country. Today, however, when it comes to human rights, the three leading stations are united - united in their intention to help the authorities beat off any accusations that they are violating these rights.


Yevgeny Kiselyov goes wide-eyed on the screen, pretending to be surprised about why the Western media reports about the bombing of a refugee convoy before other news. Pavel Sheremet, that recent martyr for the right to information, looks especially vile now: What is the West in such a boil about - after all, what we are doing in Chechnya is the same thing it did in Kosovo.


A brief survey: Around 20,000 bombs were dropped during the entire conflict in Kosovo. Of those, only 80 - or 0.4 percent - went past their targets to hit civilian homes, the Chinese Embassy, and so on. This information - which NATO put out three months ago - has been disputed by no one. If we were sure that the Russian army could strike at terrorist bases with such surgical precision, then there would be no protest.


Television has also failed to mention the authorities' growing encroachment on human rights groups via the re-registration law, passed by the State Duma in June, now being applied to non-governmental organizations.


The legal department of the Moscow mayor's office did much to initiate this law and to grab on to it when it was passed.


One group that the city authorities refused to re-register was one of Russia's oldest human rights organizations, the Glasnost fund. Renowned academician and ecologist Alexei Yablokov was also turned down several times through 1998 and 1999 while trying to register his inter-regional rights coalition Ecology and Human Rights. City Hall bureaucrats finally informally informed him that he should take the words "human rights" out of the organization's title and charter. Then, they said, they would register it.


Protests to the Justice Ministry got no action: The ministry said that the mayor's legal department is "autonomous in its decisions," which gave City Hall the green light for further despotism. Yablokov filed suit in April. In court, the legal department explained its position thus: The Constitution stipulates that the defense of human rights lies with the state. Social organizations can only assist in the defense of those rights - that is, help government.


It is well known throughout the world that government agencies are the primary human rights violators. States are constantly trying to broaden the boundaries of their authority at the expense of our rights, if only on instinct. In this sense, there are no good or bad governments. But there are societies that allow authorities to violate civil rights and those that don't - or at least don't allow such violations to go unpunished.


The position of Moscow's legal department can be expressed as "I violate human rights, I defend human rights." Despite the idiocy of such an argument, the court found in favor of the City Hall legal department. Yablokov appealed to the Moscow City Court in August, which - in violation of several statutes of the constitution and a whole series of international obligations Russia has as a member of the Council of Europe - also found in City Hall's favor.


The case is again pending with the Moscow City Court. The case will also be heard in January by the Human Rights and Legal Committee in the Parliamentary Assembly of the Council of Europe. The Council's High Commissioner for Human Rights for the Baltic countries has filed an inquiry with Moscow's city government and also intends to file one with federal authorities. But by now, the Moscow initiative has been seized on by the regions: Krasnodar Governor Nikolai Kondratenko has already closed all the truly independent non-governmental organizations in his area, allowing only those organizations that he controls to register.


The touching unity of Luzhkov with the Kremlin to declare as outlaws all defenders of fundamental rights and political freedoms is easily explained.


The administration is trying at all levels to brush off everybody that it can't effectively control. Having dealt a blow to the media, authorities are declaring war on the next bastion of freedom - human rights organizations.


Boris Pustintsev is the chairman of the St. Petersburg-based human rights organization Citizens' Watch. He contributed this comment to The Moscow Times.