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#8 - JRL 2007-27 - JRL Home
Russia: Misprint Or Provocation?
By Victor Yasmann
Copyright (c) 2007. RFE/RL, Inc. Reprinted with the permission of Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty, 1201 Connecticut Ave., N.W. Washington DC 20036. www.rferl.org

February 2, 2007 (RFE/RL) -- A tempest is brewing in Moscow over a recent U.S. report that gives Russia poor marks for human rights and civil liberties. But the commotion is based on incorrect figures, disseminated in the Russian press, that give the country even lower marks than it actually received.

Freedom House, the U.S.-based organization promoting democratic principles, on January 17 issued its annual "Freedom in the World" report.

The report, which ranks countries around the world according to their protection of political and civil liberties, this year marked no change in Russia's score.

Freedom House researchers did note a further deterioration of human and civil rights in the country in 2006, citing mounting state control of the economy and the intensified crackdown on nongovernmental organizations. But the downturn was not enough to alter Russia's ranking.

Bad, But Not The Worst

On a scale of 1 to 7 -- 7 being the lowest -- Russia received a 5 for civil liberties and a 6 for political rights. It also retained the general "not free" rating it has had since 2004.

On February 1, however, the state-run news agency RIA Novosti reported -- either intentionally or unwittingly -- that Freedom House had given Russian the lowest grades in both numerical categories, ranking it alongside countries like Cuba, Libya, and North Korea.

The Freedom House report is readily available on the Internet. But that wasn't enough to keep the semi-official "Rossiiskaya gazeta" and "Kommersant" newspapers from quickly running with the RIA Novosti report. Even the liberal Ekho Moskvy radio station repeated the figures.

'Incompetent Preaching'

Angry reactions from Russian officialdom followed shortly. "The absurdity of such an evaluation leaves no room for comment," huffed a statement from the Russian Foreign Ministry.

Ella Pamfilova, head of the presidential council on civil-society institutions and human rights, said Russia has no need for "incompetent preaching" and accused Freedom House of maintaining "links with the CIA." Mikhail Margelov, who chairs the Foreign Affairs Committee of the Federation Council, announced Russia would ignore the report.

The reports stumped even veteran rights activists like Lyudmila Alekseyeva, the founder and chairwoman of the Moscow Helsinki Group, who told journalists that although Freedom House was correct in noting the overall deterioration in liberties, equating Russia with North Korea was an exaggeration.

Getting It Right

Remarkably, even as the falsified figures were spreading throughout Russia's mainstream media, a number of publications tied to the secret-service community -- including the St. Petersburg-based RosBalt news agency and the "Trud" daily -- printed the correct ratings.

The situation leaves Russia watchers with a question: Were the wrong figures published by RIA Novosti and "Rossiiskaya gazeta" a mistake -- or an effort to discredit Freedom House?