News / 17.12.2013

The Name of the Game in Rostov-on-Don

In the last 20 years, 341 journalists were killed in Russia, according to the Union of journalists of Russia. Some of these victims lived and worked in Rostov Region, the administrative center of the Southern Federal District.

Recently several more journalists in the region have come under pressure because of their professional work. Sergey Reznik has been sentenced to 18 months of prison colony "as an act of vengeance from the authorities" as another local persecuted journalist, Sergey Azarov described the situation.

On December 21 there will be a rally, organized by those journalists who understand that they will be next in turn if they don’t stand up for their colleagues.

By Oksana Chelysheva

On November 26, 2013 Sergey Reznik, a freelance journalist from Rostov-on-Don was sentenced to 1,6 years in prison colony by Pervomayskiy district court of Rostov-on-Don, the port city and the administrative center of Southern Federal District of Russia.

Sergey Reznik had been contributing to a number of outlets, including the regional supplement to the Novaya Gazeta. Since April 2012 not just one but five criminal cases have been instituted againsе the journalist since April 2012. On November 26 the court was hearing Sergey Reznik’s charges on three out of the five instituted cases. The journalist was found guilty on all the three accounts. Sergei Reznik was found guilty of "publicly insulting" the chairwoman of the Rostov Oblast Arbitration Court on his LiveJournal blog. The court also found Reznik guilty of paying a 2,000-ruble ($45) bribe to a mechanic to clear his car in a technical inspection. Furthermore, the court declared Reznik's claims that he received threatening phone calls a false complaint, and agreed with prosecutors that he had arranged the calls himself.

We were on phone with Sergey three days before the final court session. He explained, “The institution of the criminal cases against me coincided in time with the phone threats which my family began to receive. It happened so that I recognized the voice of one of the two people who were threatening us. I identified him as Andrey Solodovnikov, a former freelance journalist with one of the newspapers. He was known for his deals with the Center to Prevent Extremism who regularly turned to his assistance if they needed to plant some incriminating evidence on people”. Sergey reported the source of the threats to the prosecutor’s office. Instead a criminal case was initiated against him.

WHEN ASKED ABOUT SOME STARTING POINT for his persecution, he told that he sensed it in November 2011 that some trouble was brewing for him. “To all appearances, I have crossed the paths of some high-ranking officials from the regional government with my articles on corruption,” Sergey stated. During that period Reznik contributed to eight local outlets, except the regional supplement to the Novaya Gazeta. However, the space for freedom of expression in the region was rapidly shrinking. Journalists were facing various obstacles to their proper functioning in their profession. Some media outlets were closed down. Their editors and journalists cooperating with them had criminal charges pressed against them. Some of the journalists were silenced by the most efficient method. They were killed.

Thus, in spring 2009, Yaroslav Yaroshenko, the editor-in-chief of “Criminality and Corruption” newspaper was found at the entrance of his apartment house being brutally beaten. He died two months after never being able to come out of coma. Viktor Afanasenko, Yaroshenko’s successor as a new editor-in-chief of the same newspaper shared his fate. He was also assaulted near his apartment house. He likewise Yaroshenko went into coma. He died in hospital on January 24, 2012. 

Margarita Yefremova, the deputy editor of the “Southern Federal” newspaper got 2-year suspended sentence in 2011 after her newspaper published several articles exposing corruption. Sergey Reznik commented Yefremova’s case, “She was under such tremendous pressure during the investigation that she preferred to admit to having committed the crime she was charged with in exchange of suspended sentence”. Yefremova was not charged with defamation or libel, them being more easily taken as “politically motivated”. She was accused of money extortion to allegedly be part of her duties as deputy editor. The charges were supported by huge defamation campaign against the journalist carried out by a number of local media resources. They contributed to the elimination of Yefremova from profession by publishing a series of articles which described her as a mafia-type personality whose single phone call would unzip big guys’ purses as a way to keep their sensitive staff out of public reach[1]. Immediately after Yefremova was detained, police raided the editorial office to thoroughly search it. As a result, the police confiscated all files which other journalists of the newspaper had developed to raise corruption-related cases. Notably, none of them has ever come under charges of defamation. The authorities were obviously focused on silencing them. To achieve the goal, it is not necessary to kill all or press charges against all. It is just necessary to pick up one or two and make them an example.

In May 2013, Sergey Azarov, another journalist from Rostov Region, found himself under repression from the authorities. Some of his articles critical of Mrs Melnikova, the head of the administration of the provincial town of Belaya Kalitva, were published in the web-portal Although the criminal case with reference to publications on the portal was initiated already on May 7th, Azarov was questioned only on June 21 for the first time. His status on the case has not been cleared as yet. He doesn’t know whether he is a suspect or a witness. What he knows is that he is restrained in his job and has to be careful with what he says or writes.

The articles critical of Melnikova, the head of Belaya Kalitva town, were found slanderous without any inquiries to confirm or refute the information they contained.  Sergey Azarov commented to me on his own case, “On July 1st, 2013, police searched my apartment and seized my computer. Until now they claim that it is being undergoing technical check-up. The investigation put three questions to the experts. One of them is extremely interesting, “Has ever the portal been opened from this computer?” But the fact that I have been reading the webpage doesn’t prove anything. To all appearances, they suspected that it was me who had been administering the webpage. Now the investigation is at a loss as they have blocked me from the Internet but the webpage continued to work”.

Sergey Azarov also used to contribute to another Rostov-on-Don newspaper, “Authorized to State”. The newspaper ceased to exist due to financial reasons, according to the official explanation. In reality, it was closed because its publisher and the chief editor Alexander Tolmachov is also fighting legal charges. Likewise Yefremova, Tolmachov has been accused of money extortion. Likewise all the other journalists targeted with legal cases against them, Tolmachov regularly published articles which were critical of the local administration. He was detained on December 20, 2011. Since then Alexander Tolmachov has been kept in pre-trial detention. According to journalists with webportal, Tolmachov’s health has steadily deteriorated while captivity in the investigation prison. His lawyers have reportedly petitioned the court many times requesting to change the terms of detention but their appeals have been turned down.

SIMILAR PROBLEMS HAVE BECOME ROUTINE REALITY to another local publisher. Yury Golubev lives in the port town of Azov, one of major towns of the region. He runs the “Read-TV week” newspaper which often raises ecological problems as Golubev is an active member of the local ecological watchdog. He was the one who exposed the fact that there was an oil spill in Azov sea port. Since 2010 Yury Golubev has been targeted with accusations of extremism for the content of one the commercials which the newspaper published. He has been also targeted with death threats which have remained uninvestigated.

Recently, the list of persecuted journalists in Rostov Region has become one name longer. After a video piece had appeared in the Internet, in which three heavily masked young men were burning the Russian flag, it was journalist Dmitry Remizov who was suddenly suspected of being one of those men. The only reason why the investigation came to such assumption was the fact that Remizov also published articles critical of the authorities. In their logic, the one who dares to criticize the power is likely to commit a crime of “desecration of state symbols”.

In February 2013 Sergey Sleptsov, the next in turn editor of the “Criminality and Corruption” newspaper, had strange visitors in his office. On February 5th, a woman who introduced herself as police lieutenant colonel from Moscow and a man introducing himself as staff of the FSB organization security division appeared in the editorial office of the newspaper. Without presenting any legal grounds for the search, they turned the editor’s office upside down seizing all files with documents related to journalist investigations.  

SERGEY REZNIK’S HISTORY OF TRIALS AND CONVICTIONS is not yet exhausted. Even if his sentence is overturned by the appeal court, there are two more criminal cases against him. One of them is also on charges of “libel”. But this time it is the former regional deputy prosecutor Klimov who feels offended with the journalist’s LJ blog. In one of his posts there Sergey Reznik mentioned that the deputy prosecutor was given “tractor-driver” nickname by his own colleagues. The linguistic expertise concluded that the words “a tractor driver” and “a conman” could be regarded as “swear-words”.

The fifth criminal case against Reznik is the apotheosis of absurdity. It was also initiated on charges of “false denunciation”. Sergey told, “During the court hearing the prosecution provided a false testimony by one police mayor who claimed he had been a witness how I was giving the 2000-Ruble alleged bribe to a car mechanic. To demonstrate the absurdity of the claims I confronted this police mayor in court telling that I had not seen anyone who would resemble him. However, the only one who I did see was a stranger who was molesting a youngster. I asked if I could suspect this police mayor of being the molester if he claims that he was an eye-witness of my never-committed crime”.

Just one day before the guilty verdict on Sergey Reznik, the International Federation of Journalists issued a statement to support him. But it was the criminal persecutions that we raised with the statement. The IFJ condemned a violent attack on Reznik that occurred on October 22, 2013, one month before the critical journalist was taken into 16-month custody. The attackers acted in full accordance with the scenario applied in previous cases of violence against journalists in the region. It was evening. Sergey was coming back home when he was attacked by two people with clubs. He suffered serious injuries.

Sergey Reznik stated in our phone conversation: “There methods of putting pressure upon me were not the only ones. During this year my employers were forced to fire me. My car was damaged on three occasions. Every time I filed the request to open an inquiry but to no avail. Furthermore, I even attached the photo of a suspect to one of those reports. It neither helped. The entry locks in my flat were damaged with some glue-like substance put inside it. It happened on two occasions. Mt family members received numerous threats via Internet. I was put on orders not to leave the city. I can neither fight back nor flee…”

On December 21, 2013 there will be a rally held in Rostov-on-Don. It is being organized by those journalists of the region who understand that they will be next in turn if they don’t stand up for their colleagues.

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