“Freedom of speech – it’s a matter of self-respect.” Galina Arapova on why she has been defending the rights of journalists in Russia for a quarter of a century

27 July 2021

Galina Arapova in conversation with Katerina Fomina

Source: Moscow Helsinki Group [original source: Glasnaya media project]

The Mass Media Defence Centre and its director Galina Arapova have been providing legal assistance to journalists and editorial offices throughout the country for 25 years, with the status of ‘foreign agent’ for six of them. 

In the last five years alone, the Centre has conducted almost 600 cases in the courts and provided more than 22,000 consultations. Among the publications whose interests have been represented by Arapova and her colleagues are Novaya gazeta, Vazhnii istorii, Kholod, Kommersant, Rossiiskaya gazeta, The New York Times, hundreds of editorial offices, television companies and bloggers from many regions of Russia. In 2016, Galina Arapova was awarded the Moscow Helsinki Group Human Rights Award.

Galina Arapova told journalists from the media project Glasnaya how it’s possible that almost the only organisation that professionally defends the right of journalists to freedom of speech operates from Voronezh, how journalists and prosecutors have attended seminars with human rights activists, and how they can live with the label of ‘foreign agent’ without going out of their minds.

‘You sit and relax’

I studied at the law faculty of Voronezh University. Really, I always wanted to be a mathematician; I liked the logical nature of that science. But at some point I thought: working all my life with numbers, it’s not for me. I needed something that’s just as logical, but where I could work with people and help them. Having thought about it, I decided that the profession for me was lawyer.

Every teenager has a hypothetical understanding of different professions. I had never met any notaries, prosecutors or judges. For me, a lawyer has always been an advocate [barrister], undoubtedly a positive hero – a person who defends. At the same time, in real life, I hadn’t met a single lawyer before entering university. Both my parents worked as technologists in factories, and we were surrounded mostly by people in various related professions.

I started working immediately after graduating from university, when I started the postgraduate correspondence course. At first I was a legal adviser in the state design bureau, I never went to court, and everything was quiet and calm. I had the feeling that I was just wasting my time: there were wonderful people around, me but they obviously did not need a lawyer. Out of boredom, I even started translating the Constitution into English. It seemed comfortable: you sit and relax, you’re not buffeted from any side, nobody bothers you. That ‘comfort’ bored me. I’m an active person; there wasn’t enough motion for me. It’s not that I was trying to give up everything and save the world from everything bad. I just hadn’t imagined the work of a lawyer that way. From there I went to an estate agent, where I stuck it out for all of one month. Relationships there operated on the basis of ‘man is a wolf to man’, and I understood that I was not going to get on with people in that context. 

One of my colleagues, who was also about to leave, said: ‘Look, some organisation in Moscow is looking for a lawyer, maybe you could go there? Some kind of Glasnost Defence Foundation.’ I say: ‘Yes, I don’t care: protection of Glasnost, assistance to homeless animals – whatever, just not here!’

Naturally, we all knew the word ‘glasnost’: Gorbachev, perestroika, glasnost. I began to pinpoint what the Foundation was doing. They told me – well, it protects journalists. I didn’t know a single journalist. We hadn’t studied media law at the university, that wasn’t really done there; media law was only three years old. My diploma says ‘lawyer-jurist’, but we did not have media law – it’s not taught in law schools even now. As a child, I only read the newspapers my parents subscribed to, mainly the last page, where the anecdotes and recipes were printed. I found various magazines and Roman-Gazeta more interesting. Only in the final years of school, when perestroika was already in full swing, was it possible to study history through newspapers, which we did with our history teacher – and it was fascinating, the press opened our eyes to history, to the world, and showed a critical view of what was happening.

So the Glasnost Defence Foundation, with its protection of journalists, should have become just another job. I did not understand what would happen there; I was open to something new. For me, there was nothing special about the need to protect journalists, and why they need to be protected; I didn’t understand. They had a job as a lawyer from our region, I needed a job, I said: ‘Why not?’ And they took me on.

There was more respect for journalists in those days”

At that time, I had no idea that the work would prove so interesting, and that it would pull me head over heels into a whole new realm of legal studies.  We studied with the best media lawyers in the world, who spoke at international conferences and taught classes at the Journalism Faculty at Moscow State University.  There were opportunities for professional growth, and there were like-minded people — the amazing team of the Glasnost Defence Foundation.  And, of course, there was a special atmosphere created by the personality, leadership, authority and charisma of Aleksei Kirillovich Simonov [president of the Glasnost Defence Foundation].  He has been a special person in my life and has strongly influenced the path I have taken.  Without him, I would not have become what I am, and for that I am incredibly grateful to him.  I struck lucky 25 years ago when I joined the Glasnost Defence Foundation as a lawyer, regardless of all the difficulties we are facing now.

The Glasnost Defence Foundation was set up in 1991.  By 1995, they had realised how hard it was from Moscow to see what was going on in the regions, and that they needed people on the ground.  It was necessary to record and check the facts regarding violations of journalists’ rights, to maintain contacts with local journalists, to offer them legal advice, to support them, and to conduct seminars.  The Foundation began to recruit regional journalists and lawyers.

The Glasnost Defence Foundation was not originally created to protect journalists, however.  It was set up by the Union of Cinematographers, of which Simonov was one of the founders, in response to the problem of censorship of cinematography.  But at that time there was a lot of violence against journalists, there were calls for openness on the part of the authorities, and journalists unexpectedly needed support and help.  That is why the Foundation became the first organisation in Russia to start monitoring violations of press rights and of freedom of speech.

In 1991, the Law On Mass Media was adopted and entered into effect.  But neither journalists nor the state authorities fully understood how to use this law.  As a result, we at the Foundation became pioneers in promoting the law in practice:  we began to explain to journalists, prosecutors and judges how it should be applied in real life.

In today’s world, this sounds incredible, but back then we worked together with the Prosecutor General’s Office.  From the first year that I was working for the Foundation, we held joint seminars: people from the Information and Public Relations Department of the Prosecutor General’s Office, lawyers from the Glasnost Defence Foundation, local journalists, employees from regional prosecutors’ offices, prosecutors’ assistants – we all met up together in different regions.  At that time, we shared a lot of common interests.

We studied the problem of access to information: what should be done to ensure that the prosecutors would respond when a journalist appealed to themt, how should the Prosecutor’s Office reply to requests for information about criminal cases, what information should be treated as confidential?  At that time, nobody doubted that that prosecutors should respond to journalists’ inquiries.  Both sides wanted to cooperate and to learn to understand one other.  We held many seminars along these lines, and we went on holding them until the mid-2000s, that is, for ten years.

Back then, there wasn’t as much serious confrontation as there is now. There wasn’t all this name-calling like, “These journos are sticking their noses in where they shouldn’t.”

Nowadays, there are laws that require government authorities to be transparent, report their activities online, and hold press conferences. Such a law didn’t exist back then, and yet there was more transparency. Now, if you ask for information, they make you go around the houses – you go to the press office, you send in a written request, and then they send you a non-reply and say, “We’re not giving you anything”. Of course, there were always times when journalists were hounded from press conferences, but it was far less common than it is now. And although there was more violence towards journalists back then, they commanded more respect.

As well as the Prosecutor’s Office, we also worked with judges. I ran a huge number of court cases involving the defence of honour and integrity. Of all the lawyers in the country, we probably get the greatest amount of this kind of trial. We can talk about defamation until the cows come home. But a judge in a district court? They might divorce someone, divide up some assets, and then – wham! – they’re hit with a defence of honour and integrity trial involving a journalist and some bigwig local official, no less. What’s that all about? How do I even deal with that? Well, we know how. That’s why we were asked in the first place, you see. They’ve noticed that we have real expertise in this area.

There used to be a lot of training programmes for judges and public prosecutors. All the people handing down these odd decisions in the name of the state now are the very ones who went off on a hundred different exchange programmes to America and Europe to see how government institutions are set up overseas and how they work with judges and police officers. They still go on these things now, in fact – however strange it may sound given the current rhetoric, only it’s not widely publicised. For example, through the Council of Europe, Russian judges regularly travel to the European Court of Human Rights to attend lectures and training workshops.

Can you even imagine, a non-profit organisation approaching state agencies and proposing to teach them something? The irony of it is that more often than not, they would come to us rather than the other way round. Or else it would involve multi-year programmes of collaboration at the level of the Judicial Department or General Prosecutor’s Office. Right up until spring 2015, many regional judges would personally invite me to run training courses for them on Russian media law or the practical application of Article 10 of the European Convention on Human Rights. Sometimes, there were so many invitations that we had to do long-term planning and effectively place them in a queue. I wouldn’t say that we were the only source of knowledge. But these seminars were always packed with practical information. We would invite brilliant experts, including European judges and ECtHR lawyers. There was also a lively exchange of opinions. The judges would not only listen with interest, but take part in practical exercises, taking on the role of ‘freedom of speech barrister’. I remember their eyes, which showed no signs of jadedness – the judges were interested in doing high-quality exercises that improved their proficiency in the narrow but important field of information law and the law of the European Convention. It was so much more interesting than simply reading updates in ‘Consultant Plus’.

“And who are you?”

For a year we operated as a regional partner of the Glasnost Defence Foundation, and then Simonov suggested creating a network of independent regional organisations. In 1996, there were eight of them, we registered the Mass Media Defence Centre, which at the time operated only in the Central Chernozemny region. But after about five years we were the only one of these organisations left. Quite simply, it was difficult to exist and find money – for many colleagues in other regions, this wasn’t their main place of work.

I devoted all my free time to the Centre. For me, it was first of all, a legal practice. The fact that I manage the organisation was of secondary importance. Until the beginning of the 2000s, aside from me, we had no employees with a legal education. I consulted, went on business trips, went to court, defended journalists left and right – until the point at which I couldn’t cope on my own. So then we took on another lawyer. And then that wasn’t enough – and so it went on.

In the early years, we often faced stereotypes. For journalists in the region, I was a young lawyer, a young woman who came up and said, “Let me protect you”. They replied: “Who are you?” The editors had no reason to trust either the Foundation or our young Mass Media Defence Centre. We did not have any serious experience, or a reputation. We just went on working and offering help.

Gradually, the attitude began to change. Journalists took an interest and started writing about us. Then they began to consult with us, including those editors who at first did not take us seriously. It’s the same as with doctors: you trust the specialist who has been recommended to you. People began to come to us ten years after the start of our work, when we had earned experience, authority, and a reputation. It made no difference to me whether we were representing the interests of the editor-in-chief of a major publication or a journalist from a local newspaper. Sometimes I would go to a remote area, where they didn’t have a hotel. I spent the night on the couch in the office. And that’s fine! They need help too. 

It’s true, the very first case I took was very high level: I was entrusted to take on the defence myself of one of the most authoritative journalists in the region at the time, Izvestia correspondent Valery Mirolevich, when the governor of the Lipetsk region filed a lawsuit against him. Valery and I then became friends.

“We can help stand up for the truth”

Our mission was originally outlined by the Glasnost Defence Foundation: to defend all journalists. We had, and still have, only two taboos: first, we don’t get involved in disputes between editorial boards or between a journalist and an editorial board, and, second, there’s no way we’re going to defend the pro-fascist press.

It has been clear from the outset that our protection is really needed in small populated areas. We have hundreds of stories where a small, unheard-of regional newspaper with three employees is being sued by some local boss. For them, it is a huge, insurmountable problem. There are one and a half lawyers in the district, all under the district administration. The newspaper doesn’t have the money to hire a lawyer, and even if it did hire one, there’s no guarantee that the lawyer would have any kind of understanding of the issue. And that’s where we come in. We give the newspaper hope and protection. We have won 97% of our defamation cases – the vast majority.

For a local journalist, especially one from a regional newspaper, getting justice isn’t easy; it is akin to a monumental feat.

They have been an editor their whole life and understand they may lose more than just the case: it would be a loss for society; they would lose the battle between good and evil.

But we can help them stand up for the truth. This is felt more strongly at the local newspaper level. We went without thinking, even if they were unable to pay us. We were able to help, and we did it sincerely. The more experience we gained, the more interested larger newspapers became in getting our help. Now, we may be invited as representatives in court by the federal media because they know we do it better than many; we simply have more experience. We do 30–50 consultations a day – not many lawyers working in editorial offices have that amount of experience.

What issues do we provide advice on the most? Advertising, intellectual property rights, defamation, privacy, the risks involved in publishing photographs, the confidentiality of sources, fake news, rules for covering rallies, what can get a website blocked, the detention of journalists, how to behave if you’re searched. A few years ago, some of these categories of cases didn’t even exist.

We have a definite position on pro bono work. We handle many cases on behalf of journalists free of charge, and we often give advice to journalists, bloggers, photographers, and even lawyers. But there is more and more work and we do not have unlimited resources, so we have to prioritise. Do you want our help? If the case touches on a fundamental freedom of speech issue, then the editorial team will not have to pay anything. If it doesn’t, but the issue is still within our competence, then our lawyer can represent you in court, but you will have to pay for this as if you had gone to a normal law office. We know how to register media outlets and write statutes and contracts, for example, and we are well-versed in advertising and copyright law, but this is not protecting the public interest. So, we will use the money we earn to keep the organisation running. Then, when a journalist encounters a problem, we will be able to help them pro bono in a public interest situation. This is how it works all over the world: you make money doing something relatively commercial and spend what you earn on protecting the public interest pro bono. That is what we’re trying to do. I think it is the right and civilised thing to do.

“Baptism by fire”

I had a baptism of fire, after which not a single case scares me. In 1998, when I was 26 years old, I worked on the case of a local TV company. They were sued by the local branch of the RNU (Russian National Unity). I represented the interests of journalists in court – and the RNU threatened to kill me.

The TV company filmed a video about how, on the eve of May 9 (Victory Day) a seemingly Nazi detachment was marching along Novovoronezh in a black uniform very similar to a fascist one, with red armbands on the sleeves that had a swastika-like emblem. The marching guys looked to be 17-18 years old, led by an adult man with a shepherd dog. Someone called the TV company: “We have fascists marching through the city.” They came and filmed a report. When this report was broadcast on air, a voiceover said: “We’ve seen this before” – over frames from “Ordinary Fascism” (a Russian documentary film on the Nazis). These guys were not called fascists –  the journalists just showed the similarities.

The Voronezh branch of the RNU, which at the time was very strong, filed a lawsuit for defamation due to the fact that they were compared to the Nazis. My task was to protect the TV company and its right to make such comparisons based on freedom of expression. In court, we had to not only show that the RNU looked like fascists in appearance, but also to prove that they had a similar ideology. We dug deep. One of the guys who left them brought us the RNU charter, and we had the opportunity to compare their rhetoric, practices, and so on. A public opinion survey agency conducted a poll for us: people were shown a swastika and a Kolovrat (the RNU symbol) and they said: “Yes, they look similar.” At the trial the judge, an adult man, was afraid, because thugs marched along the court corridor and were on the verge of kicking open the door to the courtroom. The judge sat hunched over.

When we closed and he ruled in our favour, these guys came up and started threatening to murder us right in the courtroom. The judge pretended not to hear anything, and quickly left.

I and several journalists whom I defended went immediately from the court to the prosecutor’s office and wrote a statement regarding the death threats. A criminal case was opened, everything was serious. A classmate of mine was at that time an investigator in the regional prosecutor’s office. He said to me: “Listen, Gal’ – no corpse, no case. Come on, this is just a threat, it’s all nonsense.” But we understood that everything was serious. In those years, all of Voronezh was painted with swastikas, Jewish families were leaving the city, RNU members patrolled the city along with the police and handed out their newspaper in the city centre. The threat to me personally was repeated three months later. The deputy chair of the Voronezh branch of the RNU pursued me in the street: he approached me, and we talked for an hour. It was clear from his look that he was capable of doing anything.

At that point, Simonov took me to Moscow from Voronezh for a month. At first, I lived in Moscow in a ‘secret apartment’ – it was his sister Masha’s flat – and then I left to live in New York for a couple of weeks with a girlfriend. The guy was put on the wanted list but was never found. The FSB agent who was monitoring the RNU promised me they wouldn’t lay a finger on me, and soon Barkashov’s supporters stopped being of interest or relevance to anyone and lost what influence they had. Soon the RNU was listed as an extremist organisation. Now, when I am working on a case and thinking about my personal safety, I feel a different sense of risk. When you are working on a case against a government official, you know he has power and connections, there is a real risk you won’t win the case in court because he can pressure the judge and the judge will had down the necessary ruling. There is a risk of losing the case, which is a shame for you, but you must agree that this on another level of risk entirely. 

We take on different cases, including ones involving very influential people. I had a case with the The New York Times when Vladimir Yakunin took them to court. I took on cases which several governors in the regions initiated against local journalists, but the level of danger has never been as high as it had been then. 

We understand what the risks are now. They will accuse you of being some agent or other and bring criminal charges against you. But we have been dealing with this kind of thing for a long time already. You can’t just give it up to start selling flowers or, I don’t know, start working on real estate deals. You are well versed in these things and can be useful. 

We take the risks into account, including those for our family and friends. They understand our situation perfectly. In our country, being a family member of a human rights activist is also a risk. It needs to be said, that I am extremely thankful to all our supporters. They are not revolutionaries, not crazy heroes. They are simply professionals and do their work to high standards. They know all the dangers but not a single one of them has packed their bags and left. 

[Read more in Russian]

Translated by Anna Bowles, Elizabeth Teague, Lindsay Munford, Mercedes Malcomson, Nicky Brown, Cameron Evans and Fergus Wright

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