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Award-Winning Russian Reporter Urges Journalists To 'Stand Together'

BarababovIlya Barabanov, a young investigative journalist for the magazine "The New Times," one of Russia's few opposition-minded publications, last week received Reporters Without Borders' (RSF) Peter Mackler Award For Courageous And Ethical Journalism.
[Article and original of image copyright (c) 2010. RFE/RL, Inc. Reprinted with the permission of Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty, 1201 Connecticut Ave., N.W. Washington DC 20036]

The award is named for the late Peter Mackler, a longtime correspondent for Agence France Presse who trained journalists around the world. RSF honored Barabanov for exposing corruption in the ranks of the country's notorious riot police and standing firm as the same police demand to know his sources. RFE/RL correspondent Richard Solash spoke with Barabanov at the National Press Club in Washington, where he received the award on October 22.

RFE/RL: What was your reaction to hearing that you had been selected for this award, and what does it mean to you?

Ilya Barabanov: First of all, it was a complete surprise to me and a pleasant one, of course. Most importantly, this prize shows that journalists from different parts of the world stand in solidarity and support each other. It is a very pleasant recognition. It is important that we follow each other's work and we stand together, not only in celebratory times but also in times of trouble, which is particularly important for Russian journalism. So for me this is a very pleasant event. I am grateful to the Peter Mackler [committee] for giving me this award.

RFE/RL: The office of your publication, "The New Times," was raided in September in connection with your investigative report "Slaves of OMON," which describes abuses committed by the country's feared riot police. Your story alleged that the police regularly violate the rights of opposition protesters, collect protection money from prostitutes, use Central Asian migrants as slave labor, and provide security for businesses and private homes for extra cash. What happened during the raid and why do you think it occurred?

Barabanov: Over the past two years we have brought to the public's attention several investigations of corruption in Russia's Interior Ministry, Federal Security Service, and other security agencies. These publications resulted in a number of criminal and civil proceedings [against "The New Times"], with ongoing trials and investigations. As part of one such criminal investigation, our office was raided by the police with the purpose of searching the office and seizing documents and audio recordings of our interviews. This investigation continues -- it has not yet been brought to any logical conclusion, and we have so far been able to defend our independence.

Official Harassment

RFE/RL: The police who raided your office demanded to know the identity of the unnamed OMON members that were sources on your report. Citing Russian press law, your publication vowed to keep the names confidential. Have the police succeeded in getting the identities of your sources from you?

Barabanov: No, of course, we have not disclosed the identities of any of our sources. We are talking about a serious conflict of interests, where on the one hand government officials are trying to tell everyone working in the [government] system that they shouldn't talk to journalists because journalists will eventually give up their names. It is crucially important for us, on the other hand, to prove that people can trust us -- that they can talk to us -- and if we assume certain obligations we will stick to them through the end. Of course, we have not revealed the names of our sources, which Russian media law [upholds]. We comply fully with the law and I think we will continue to defend this position.

RFE/RL: Have you taken any action to challenge the raid?

Barabanov: Yes, naturally. We have contested all of those decisions professionally, publicly, but also legally. We are going to go to court and prove that security services were wrong to apply such pressure on journalists.

RFE/RL: What do you think will be the outcome of your challenge in court?

Barabanov: It is hard to make any predictions about Russian courts because at this stage of their development their decisions are very much tied to the executive branch -- particularly the government and the Kremlin -- and it is hard to expect an independent decision from a Russian court. However, we hope our position is sufficiently well-reasoned and we can make a convincing case in court. But only Vladimir Putin knows what the outcome of these proceedings will be.

RFE/RL: Have you personally been intimidated or harassed for your reporting?

Barabanov: I think that almost every independent journalist in Russia faces some forms of threats, intimidation, or other measures of influence. I wouldn't focus attention on my own person here. Like many of my colleagues, I have been in such situations. What matters is your reaction. It's important to pay no attention to this, but to continue working, because if you think too much about threats, danger, and risks, it will lead to no good.

Medvedev's Promises

RFE/RL: Early in his tenure, Russian President Dmitry Medvedev called for an end to media censorship in the country. Has the journalistic climate for improved under Medvedev compared to its dismal state under former President Vladimir Putin?

Barabanov: I have to say that just six months before Dmitry Medvedev was elected president of Russia, our colleague [and my wife], Natalya Morari, a correspondent for "The New Times," was expelled from Russia. It happened in December 2010, so it's been three years. We have tried to appeal this decision to various courts in Russia. A young journalist, 24 years of age, a brilliant graduate of Moscow University's School of Journalism, she was declared a threat to national security and banned from entering the country. We have fought for her return to Russia for three years, to no avail. And unfortunately, one can note that although Dmitry Medvedev often says the right things, in practice these words have no reflection in reality.

RFE/RL: Earlier this month, Medvedev named Mikhail Fedotov, the secretary of Russia's Union of Journalists, to be his top human rights adviser. What effect do you think this will have on media freedom in the country?

Barabanov: Mikhail Fedotov has long been known as an honest and principled champion of freedom of speech, and his appointment as head of the presidential human-rights council and presidential adviser gives reason for certain optimism because there is no doubt he is not going to overlook serious issues.

Another matter is how much the Kremlin is going to allow Fedotov to do his job, how much the Kremlin will heed the advice of the human rights council, and whether President Medvedev is capable of breaking down the existing bureaucratic, corrupt structure to allow issues that are painful to society to be resolved. To some extent, it happens sometimes. After long years of struggle, Svetlana Bakhmina and Vasily Aleksanyan -- lawyers convicted in the Yukos case-- have been released. Those were high-profile cases and civil society fought for them. Some 100,000 signatures were collected in support of the release of Svetlana Bakhmina and she was released at last.

So far, these are isolated cases. There are very, very few of them. But the fact that this has actually started to happen under Medvedev -- under Putin it was impossible in principle -- gives reason for optimism. It's a positive trend, and one would hope that it will continue in the future.

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