In Russia, you can’t hold a public gathering or protest without a permit. Okay, a lot of places have similar laws. I can understand this even if I don’t agree with it. But according to Vremya Novosti, the local court in Tver district in Moscow set a “precedent which threatens to turn into new accusations that the Russian government is violating civil freedoms.” Not only is holding non-permitted gatherings consider illegal, now it’s also verboten for journalists to cover them. “According to the [court’s] ruling, journalists, who enter unsanctioned protests or marches to make their reports are equated with the participants in these protests and violators of the law.” Nice.
The case involves Andrei Stenin, a photo correspondent for RIA Novosti, who was charged with participating in an “unsanctioned protest” in December in front of the Presidential Administration building. If by “participating,” you mean entering the crowd to cover it, then Stepin was participating. He was fined 500 rubles. Granted, it’s a paltry fine, about $20, or basically the cost of two mega-cappuccinos and a piece of cake at the Coffee Bean near Chistye Prudy. But the amount of the fine isn’t the issue. It’s the reason for it. Basically, the government now has the legal means to test the philosophical question: if a protest occurs and it’s not in the news, did it really occur? This is one more verification that the powers that be are the true postmodernists.
But not to worry. In a statement, Vladimir Kolonoltsev, the head of the Moscow branch of the Internal Affairs, said “for law-abiding citizens, who participate in protests, officials of the city police always closely follow and act strictly in accordance with the law.”
Really!? Tell that to Artem Buzenkov a blind kid who found himself treated in “strict accordance with the law.”
However, yesterday’s ruling of the lower court became a precedent only in relation to journalists. But in recent history there are known cases when the police acted far from “carefully following the law” with those citizens who by chance find themselves in an unsanctioned civil action. For example, as Vremya Novosti reported, in December 2008 Artem Buzenkov, a blind student from Podmoskovya came to the capital to go to the theater and exiting onto Triumfal square next to the metro station Mayakovskii found himself in a “Dissident’s March,” which OMON officers actively dispersed. The unsuspecting blind student fell into their earnest hand. He was convicted of participating in an unsanctioned protest and fined 500 rubles. True, the city court interfered and completely exonerated the blind student who didn’t accept his fate and sought the restoration of his good name.
Time will tell if Russian journalists will be so lucky. I suggest they add a white cane to their repertoire.