FreeMediaOnline.org & Free Media Online Blog, GovoritAmerika.us, April 1, 2009, San Francisco — According to a senior U.S. Administration official, the violent attack against Lev Ponomarev, a leading Russian human rights activist, was raised during Wednesday’s meeting in London between President Obama and Russia’s President Dmitry Medvedev.
“I’m sure many of you have read, Lev Ponomarev was badly beaten in Moscow yesterday. He is a leading human rights activist in — first in the Soviet Union with Andrei Sakharov and all through — that came up in a very productive, positive exchange about what had happened to him, and a concern expressed on both sides,” said a senior U.S. Administration official in a background briefing for reporters in London.
Earlier, nine human rights organizations have called on the Russian authorities to investigate the attack against the prominent human rights defender. Ponomarev, 67, was attacked and seriously injured by several unidentified assailants late on the night of March 31, 2009, outside his apartment building in Moscow. The organizations – the Andrei Sakharov Foundation, Amnesty International USA, Freedom House, Frontline Defenders, Human Rights First, Human Rights Watch, the International League for Human Rights, International Memorial Society, and the Jacob Blaustein Institute for the Advancement of Human Rights – called on US President Barack Obama and other leaders meeting with President Dmitri Medvedev of Russia at the G-20 gathering in London to highlight the need to bring Ponomarev’s attackers to justice and to ensure an end to the growing number of attacks on human rights activists in Russia.
Russia is also one of the least safe countries in the world for journalists. The Committee to Protect Journalists said in a recently released report, “Getting Away With Murder 2009” that President Dmitry Medvedev failed to deliver on his promise that attacks against journalists would be investigated and prosecuted. The CPJ charges that the Russian authorities “have failed to obtain convictions in even high-profile killings such as the 2004 murder of Forbes editor Paul Klebnikov and the 2006 slaying of investigative reporter Anna Politkovskaya.”
The most recent victim of violence against journalists is Sergey Protazanov, a reporter for Grajdanskoye Soglasye, a local newspaper based in the north Moscow suburb of Khimki. The Reporters Without Borders NGO reported that he died at his home on 30 March, two days after being attacked and beaten. He had been covering irregularities in the 1 March local elections in which Khimki mayor Victor Strelchenko was reelected.
Human rights violations have been a low priority in U.S.-Russian relations in recent years and, in the opinion of most experts, are not likely to take precedence for the Obama Administration over such issues as nuclear proliferation, Iran, or the war on terror. But according to Ted Lipien, president of FreeMediaOnline.org, a San Francisco-based media freedom nonprofit, the raising of the Ponomarev case during the Obama-Medvedev meeting may signal a subtle change in emphasis.
The lack of concern for the human rights situation and the safety of journalists in Russia became especially glaring during the last months of the Bush Administration in controversial actions of the bipartisan Broadcasting Board of Governors (BBG), which oversees U.S. broadcasts to Russia and other countries. The BBG took Voice of America (VOA) Russian-language radio programs off the air last summer just 12 days before the Russian military incursion into Georgia. The BBG’s action resulted in a major reduction in human rights reporting by the Voice of America in Russia and, combined with the Kremlin’s own media restrictions, produced an estimated 98% drop in annual audience reach for VOA (from 7.3% in 2007 to est. 0.2% in 2009).
FreeMediaOnline.org has launched a volunteer-run Russian-language website, GovoritAmerica.us, to compensate for the BBG’s restrictions on VOA broadcasting.
The BBG has also been accused of exposing Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty (RFE/RL) journalists in Russia to intimidation and blackmail by the Kremlin’s security services and of denying their foreign-based journalists basic protections of U.S. labor law. In addition to VOA, whose journalists are Federal employees, the BBG oversees RFE/RL, which is based primarily in Prague and Moscow, and other privatized broadcasting entities such as Alhurra Television for the Middle East. BBG-managed Alhurra has been criticized for poor journalism, broadcasting statements by Holocaust deniers, and financial irregularities. A Russian human rights organization has criticized RFE/RL for giving extensive airtime to a Russian politician known for his racist views.
Former Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty journalists are suing the U.S. taxpayer-funded broadcaster in the Czech and European courts over its labor practices. One of the journalists requested the Czech Constitutional Court to question Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, who is an ex officio member of the BBG. She enjoys diplomatic immunity and is not expected to respond.
Later this week, she and President Obama will be visiting the Czech Republic, where the local media has reported on this story as an example of a double standard in American human rights policies. The controversy also drew a comment from former Czech President and human rights defender Vaclav Havel. The case could prove embarrassing to U.S. officials during President Obama’s visit.
FreeMediaOnline.org’s Ted Lipien said that “the BBG’s actions, which been disastrous for journalists’ rights overseas, have caused its own journalists and other employees to rate it in a government-wide Office of Personnel Management survey as the worst-run Federal agency.” He called on the Obama Administration to “move quickly to restore the human rights focus at the BBG and to make the agency accountable to the American taxpayers who don’t want their money to be used to give credence to Holocaust deniers and contribute to racial violence in Russia.”