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08MOSCOW3464 2008-12-01 14:53:00 CONFIDENTIAL Embassy Moscow
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R 011453Z DEC 08
					  C O N F I D E N T I A L MOSCOW 003464 

E.O. 12958: DECL: 12/01/2018


Classified By: Political Minister Counselor Alice Wells for reasons 1.4
(b) and (d)

1. (C) Summary: In response to the recent attack on
independent journalist Mikhail Beketov, the Public Chamber
held a hearing on November 25 at which Lawyers Association
head Pavel Astakhov proposed a legal amendment to the
criminal code increasing the punishment for endangering the
life of a journalist to up to 20 years. Public Chamber
members were nearly unanimous in their support of Astakhov's
proposal as well as his indignation over the recent attacks.
Both Khimki municipal authorities and Khimki independent
media representatives attended the hearing, which became loud
and contentious. Leaders of press freedom NGOs expressed
deep skepticism over the likelihood of the meeting's words
translating into concrete action. End Summary.

2. (SBU) Recent attacks on independent journalists such as
Mikhail Beketov in Khimki have caught international
attention, leading the Public Chamber to declare its
intention to create a center for defense of journalists'
rights (reftel). Lawyers Association head Pavel Astakhov
addressed the recent attack on Beketov (who remains in
critical condition in a coma, with one leg amputated due to
gangrene following a savage beating) at a packed, contentious
hearing of the Commission on Communication, Information
Policy and Media Freedom at the Public Chamber on November

25. Astakhov proposed a legal amendment to the criminal code
increasing the punishment for endangering the life of a
journalist to 12 to 20 years. Saying that "For too long
bandits have considered killing journalists to be part of
their work," he advocated putting journalists in the same
category as police officers and government officials. He
also proposed increasing the penalty for impeding a
journalist's legal pursuit of his or her work to 80,000
rubles. In a November 26 meeting, Astakhov told us that he
enjoyed good contacts within the Duma and was cautiously
optimistic legislative action would be forthcoming.

3. (SBU) Public Chamber members at the meeting were nearly
unanimous in their support of Astakhov's proposal as well as
his indignation over the recent attacks. The one exception
was Nashi member Irina Plasheva, who called independent
journalists "unprofessional." A more common sentiment was
expressed by Chamber member Nikolay Svanidze, television
commentator and head of the Committee for Free Information,
who called the recent attacks on "defenseless journalists
"monstrous," and said, "a blow to journalism is a blow to our
society." Astakhov conceded to us that deteriorating
economic conditions could exacerbate the dangerous conditions
facing investigative journalists, particularly outside of
Moscow and St. Petersburg, where critical NGO and
international scrutiny was lacking.

4. (SBU) Chamber member Aleksandr Brod of the Moscow Bureau
of Human Rights suggested that the Chamber coordinate with
the various monitoring organizations supporting journalists
throughout the country. He also criticized the General
Prosecutor's recently announced plan to monitor the media for
any "damaging" reports that might exacerbate the financial
crisis; he said that journalists have the right to provide
analysis on the situation, and that their inability to even
use the word "crisis" is absurd. (Note: Putin's
acknowledgment of "difficult conditions" facing the country
at the recent United Russia congress may signal greater GOR
openness on that point. End note.)

5. (U) Marina Gridneva, representing the General Prosecutor's
office on collaboration with the media, defended the GOR's
policy, saying that no one in the media will receive any
unwanted GOR attention unless they purposely publish false
information related to the crisis. "This is not censorship,"
she emphasized. (Note: On November 26, Kommersant reported
that columnist Yevgeny Gontmakher had received a warning
letter from the Prosecutor's office for publishing a future
scenario in which Russia's society disintegrates due to the
crisis. End note.) She also claimed that the Prosecutor's
office takes the Beketov case seriously, and offered as
evidence of this its "re-qualification" of the attack as an
attempted murder.

A Volatile Mix of Attendees from Khimki


6. (U) Pavel Gusev, President of the Commission and editor of
the mainstream daily Moskovsky Komsomolets, invited local
authorities from Khimki and Moscow to the meeting, as well as
representatives of independent media in Khimki. Since
widespread commentary -- as well as evidence of threats and
intimidation -- links the attack on Beketov with his work to
uncover corruption among Khimki authorities and to defend the
Khimki forest against their construction projects, the mix
proved to be a volatile one and Gusev frequently struggled to
maintain decorum. Khimki mayor Vladimir Strelchenko, said
that journalists "need to fight for their rights," and issued
an invitation to any activist to visit Khimki. These
blandishments were met with raucous catcalls from audience
members and from the Khimki media representatives. Anatoly
Yurov, editor of the Khimki-based Civil Consent, told the
hearing that unknown assailants had attacked him three times
in the past two years, on one occasion inflicting ten stab
wounds. Gusev was reduced to reaffirming his faith in Russia
and his hope that the Public Chamber could "help in some
way," noting that "this isn't Africa." Vladislav Gulgo of
the Moscow branch of the Interior Ministry, also present,
said that they did not yet have any suspects in the attack.
(Note: The investigation was moved to the Moscow oblast due
to suspicion of Khimki authorities' objectivity in the case.
End note.)

Simonov: Where Was the Public Chamber Last Year?



7. (C) Aleksey Simonov of the Glasnost Defense Fund pointed
out that over the past two years, Beketov had his car burned
and his dog killed; he also received numerous threats, and
Khimki authorities opened a slander case against him. While
all of these things were taking place, Simonov said,
authorities and the Public Chamber paid the matter no
attention. Simonov also noted that Article 144 of the law on
media allows the GOR to close down a media entity on
undefined grounds, giving it practically limitless latitude
in silencing critics. He said that the Glasnost Defense Fund
routinely sent letters to government officials complaining of
harassment of journalists, but that he never received any
response. Privately, he also expressed to us his deep
skepticism for the Public Chamber as a body, saying that they
have no mandate to change GOR policy and that this meeting
had amounted to nothing more than "pretty words."

Street Protest


8. (SBU) On November 30, a little over 1000 protesters
gathered in Khimki and in Moscow, accusing Mayor
Strelchenko's office of ordering the Beketov attack. Former
deputy director of the GOR's Office of Environmental
Administration Oleg Mitvol spoke at the Moscow rally outside
Chistiye Prudy metro station, noting that "Beketov is already
the third editor to end up in intensive care." Mitvol in
recent years headed inquiries into oil and gas projects, and
in some instances was accused of targeting specific firms in
order to benefit state-owned companies. However, he now is
battling his superiors at the environmental agency.



9. (C) If Khimki authorities intended to bury any controversy
over their construction plans by attacking Beketov, the plan
clearly backfired. The attack has received widespread
coverage in domestic and international press, although
state-run television has remained silent. Although the
hearing's free-form discussion had the feel of a democratic
town hall meeting, the Public Chamber is limited by its lack
of authority. As Gusev correctly pointed out, the Public
Chamber currently has no power to propose laws in the Duma,
and no Duma representatives were present at the meeting.
However, the Public Chamber continues to serve as a bully
pulpit for otherwise establishment figures who seek
incremental change and are reluctant to identify too closely
with Russia's fractious opposition forces.