News website sued over prison abuse claims

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Date: 
18 Nov 2014

A respected Russian news website dedicated to reporting human rights issues has been sued by the regional Russian Federal Penitentiary Service. With support from MLDI, lawyers with The Mass Media Defence Centre are fighting the case.

In November 2013 a Russian news website, which we can’t name for security reasons, published a press release claiming that guards had abused and tortured prisoners. The press release had been produced by a human rights organisation, again which we can’t name here.

The regional office of the federal penitentiary service responded in February 2014 by filing a civil defamation claim against both the news site and the human rights organisation. It denied the claims of torture and abuse.

Lawyers for MLDI’s partner, the Mass Media Defence Centre, are currently defending the news site. Based in Voronezh, around 500km south of Moscow, the Centre is the only organisation in Russia that specialises in media defence litigation.

“This news site is one of the few media outlets in Russia that regularly publishes human rights stories,” explains Galina Arapova, director of the Mass Media Defence Centre. “In this case it wasn’t their own text that was published - it was text from the human rights organisation’s press release.”

The case rests on this technicality. According to Russian law on mass media, if a media outlet quotes from an official press release of another organisation, they are not held responsible for the facts. “So we just have to prove in court that it wasn’t the news site’s text,” says Galina.

The case is being played out in a remote region of Russia, and Galina and her team have identified a lawyer from a neighbouring region to argue the case in court.  She is funded by MLDI and is working closely with the Mass Media Defence Centre to develop a legal strategy.

The first big challenge is to get the case moved to Moscow, where the news site is registered. “If the case stays in the local courts, it’s easier for the claimant to organise pressure on the judge,” says Galina. “If we transfer the case to Moscow, it’s much more likely that we’ll have a fair and independent hearing because the claimant won’t be able to influence the judges.”

An order to transfer the case was obtained in April but was appealed and then counter-appealed in a process described by Galina as “administrative games to make the claimants’ lives easier”. But she is confident that the case will eventually be relocated.

While it attempts to establish a fair trial in the capital, the Mass Media Defence Centre is working with the human rights organisation to protect the female activist who was quoted in the press release as having reported the abuse. The penitentiary service wants to identify this young woman as a defendant in the case.

“As a woman involved in human rights activities in such a difficult region, she is very brave,” says Galina. “We don’t want her to be put in front of the court because that would bring attention she doesn’t need. So we are negotiating to extract her from the case on the grounds that it was the human rights organisation that disseminated the information, not her.”

While Galina and her team wait for news, the case is further jeopardising the already nervous relationship between the Russian media and human rights organisations.

“In this particular case, the news site is dedicated to human rights issues. They won’t be threatened by it,” says Galina. “But for other media outlets, this is another sign that they better not fuss with important, influential state agencies.”