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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

LETTER FROM THE ENCLAVE: Elective Truth and Justice




Far too infrequently do we journalists get the chance to hook up with the heroes of our past articles, mainly because an abundance of fresh persona continues to stream into our lives as new assignments are passed out. When I first saw Igor Rostov, he was in a hospital bed, his face and head a tangle of scars and stitches. He had just been savagely mauled by a pair of steel pipes on a quaint Kaliningrad street. Once their task was done, the two pipe-wielding thugs sat in a car and drove away. Another day at the office.


Seven months later Rostov looks good. He is nimble and full of mirth. His media company Kaskad f consisting of a daily paper, two radio stations and 34 hours of daily television broadcasts f is chugging along despite constant political pressure. When asked what has changed in his life since the November assault, he says with a smile, "I go everywhere with a bodyguard now."


Paying a visit to Rostov during these heady days seemed a timely idea on the heels of the well-publicized attacks on the country's independent press. Though he is no Vladimir Gusinsky, Igor is the bona fide media magnate in the nation's westernmost province. And like Gusinsky, he has powerful adversaries: He is the arch-nemesis of Kaliningrad Governor Leonid Gorbenko. Does the Gusinsky precedent have him frazzled?


"Or course," said Rostov. "Putin has given the signal as to what governors can do with journalists and those who own the mass media." Will something similar happen in Kaliningrad? "It definitely will," he answered calmly, "and not only in Kaliningrad."


With gubernatorial elections set for November, the influential Rostov has been feeling the heat from Gorbenko for some time. He, along with Kaskad, has been sued over a dozen times in recent months by the governor and his administration. A successful defense is ruled out.


Each time defendant Rostov was given the same district court judge, and each time he has lost. One trial lasted all of 20 minutes, with Judge Valery Semyonov entering the courtroom and, after flatly refusing to hear testimony or listen to witnesses, immediately reading a prepared verdict.


The suit had been a crucial one. While lying wrapped in bandages in the hospital bed, Rostov had told one of his own reporters that Gorbenko and his deputy, Ivan Pimenov, "may have been" the ones who ordered the steel-pipe head massage. For these words Rostov, the reporter, and Kaskad were promptly sued by both Gorbenko and Pimenov for 600,000 rubles ($22,000).


"It was just an opinion," said Rostov. "But the regional administration wants to sue people for their opinions now, for phrases written in a paper or spoken on the air. Pretty soon they're going to start suing people for their thoughts."


The two cases were lost for Rostov before they ever began, though total damages were pegged by the court at a fraction f 18,000 rubles f of what the plaintiffs wanted. Interestingly enough, the ruling on the Pimenov suit, signed by Judge Semyonov on Feb. 3, contains an ugly grammatical mistake that, other than being a fitting irony to the suit, could technically render the court's decision invalid.


But regardless of grammar, Rostov appealed the decisions, and, quite expectedly, the regional court upheld the lower court's verdicts. Curiously, Rostov was told by a court official that the lower court's decisions could be reviewed once again after the gubernatorial elections this fall, depending upon the outcome of those elections.


That's pretty much how regional courts work these days. Still, Gorbenko is bent on attacking Kaskad from every angle. Feeling that his reputation was irreparably wounded by Rostov's hospital-bed putsch, the governor has even asked the regional prosecutor to begin criminal proceedings against the recalcitrant media magnate. For now the case hangs in limbo, though if history is any judge, the fate of Rostov's "crime" also depends upon November's elections.


And just to cover his bases, Gorbenko even tried stinging Rostov in Moscow. In March he gave a speech in the Federation Council saying that the time had come to amend the law on the mass media. There are too many news media and not enough liability, the governor said. Kaliningrad residents were stunned upon hearing the contents of the speech, since it is their taxes that finance three local newspapers and one of the two television stations managed by the Gorbenko administration.


Gary Peach is an independent journalist living and working in Kaliningrad. This is the first of a regular column he will be writing for The Moscow Times.