Svetlana Prokopyeva’s final statement in court: “State power in the hands of cruel people is a major threat to security”

3 July 2020

The final address of the journalist Svetlana Prokopyeva to the court

Source: Novaya gazeta

Svetlana Prokopyeva.  Photo from her personal archive

Novaya gazeta notes:  The prosecutor’s office has asked for the Pskov-based freelance journalist Svetlana Prokopyeva, who is on trial for justifying terrorism (Article 205.2 of the Russian Criminal Code), to be sentenced to six years in an ordinary regime prison colony. [For a detailed description of the Russian penal system, including information on the four types of penal colony, see Jan Strzelecki, ‘Russia behind bars: The peculiarities of the Russian prison system,’ Centre for Eastern Studies, Warsaw – trans.]  The criminal case against Prokopyeva was filed in February 2019, following her on-air commentary on Ekho of Moscow in Pskov concerning the terrorist attack by 17-year-old suicide-bomber Mikhail Zhlobitsky in Arkhangelsk in 2017 [the text can be found here – trans.]  Prokopyeva suggested in her commentary that the state “had itself fostered” a generation of citizens who were fighting against it.  Here is her final address to the court:

Honoured court!

Preparing my speech, I asked myself what I always ask myself:  ‘What do I want to tell the public that is important?’  Final statements usually attract rapt attention, and it would not make sense to confine my speech simply to an appeal for sympathy.

First, I decided to tell you how ridiculous it is to punish words with the power of criminal prosecution — how ineffectual that is compared to real-life public condemnation.  Judge for yourselves:  we see many examples where an official, politician or celebrity who says something stupid, rude or insulting provokes a scandal and immediately loses their job and their advertising contracts.  Social networks respond quickly and sensitively.  Society, following the collective instinct of self-preservation, itself eliminates the language of animosity and hatred.

Compare this with my criminal case.  When it was published, my commentary ‘Repressions for the state’ was read by dozens, or at most hundreds of people.  It did not provoke any social unrest.  And yet, six months later, officers from the Special Rapid Response Unit of the National Guard broke into my home bearing machine guns. They turned my house upside down, confiscated my belongings – and now, two years later, with the help of experts, we are learning whether anything criminal was discovered.  And now my text, which in the opinion of Roskomnadzor [the Federal Service for the Supervision of Communications, Information Technologies and Mass Communicationstrans.] is dangerous, has been read by hundreds of thousands of people, been translated into English, and become public knowledge in many countries.

The other topic that I decided to touch on is the inverted pyramid of the law.  I am a journalist and my profession is founded on the constitutional right to freedom of speech.  This is spelled out in the federal law ‘On the Mass Media,’ which obliges a journalist to inform the public about significant events and problems and gives them the right publicly to express their personal opinion.  This is my work, and this is what I am being tried for.

And so, on one side of the scales we have the Constitution, and on the other the departmental orders of Roskomnadzor.  An official from this quasi-censorship body, when she saw that the machine was searching for text containing the words ‘terrorist attack,’ realised that she was dealing with a ‘serious article’ and filled in a card labelled ‘violation,’ though she did not understand what the violation was, because she had no specialist education.  ‘I’m not an expert,’ she has said during this trial.  Then the card, in accordance with instructions, travelled a long bureaucratic path from one office to another, and as a result what turned out to have been violated was not only the constitutional right to freedom of speech and opinion, not only the status of the journalist as enshrined in federal law, but the very basis of the law – the presumption of innocence, insofar as I, let me remind you, had already been punished by the confiscation of my property and money, even before the trial began. 

Typically, not one of the state agencies involved in the case acknowledged or righted this imbalance.  This already speaks of the ill health of our legal system.

However, there is something even more important.  The expert I brought here, Yulia Aleksandrovna Safonova, speaking before the court, noted that states deliberately restrict freedom of speech in matters relating to inciting hostility and hatred.  That explains why, in theory, criminal prosecutions ‘for words’ are possible.  Yulia Aleksandrovna went on to explain what she meant.  She recalled that such restrictions first appeared in the legislation of democratic countries following the Second World War, when the world realised to what catastrophes Nazi propaganda had led.  Then, too, they had been ‘just words.’

This is a crucial dilemma.  How, when using the power of the law and state coercion to fight against hostile language, can we at the same time preserve freedom of speech?  How can we avoid absurd criminal cases when I, for example, am facing six years in prison for expressing my personal opinion?  Or when, for posting a comment on a social network, an individual is first arrested and then sent to a penal colony?  You and I fully understand that these examples are far from the words and speeches that led to Buchenwald and Auschwitz.

I have thought about this a lot, and I think I understand where the essential problem lies.  Nazi propaganda, which led to the genocide of entire nations, a world war and the deaths of millions, was state propaganda.  Adolf Hitler, the organiser of the greatest crime against humanity in history, was the leader of the state.  Goebbels, who became a household name, was a civil servant – the minister of propaganda.  And the ordinary people who carried out the Holocaust, who executed shootings and torture in the concentration camps, were also in the service of the state.  They ‘acted according to instructions’ and ‘simply obeyed orders.’

If we turn to history, we will see that the most massive killings of peaceful civilians were organised by state forces.  The Cultural Revolution in China (which involved some 100 million victims in 1966-1976) was the official policy of the ruling Chinese Communist Party.  The Great Terror in the USSR (which involved over 1.5 million victims in 1937-1938) was carried out by the state security forces.  The Armenian Genocide (which saw 1.1 million victims in 1915) was supported by the government of the Ottoman Empire.  The Rwanda genocide (which involved 800,000 victims among the Tutsi people in four months of 1994) was organised by the Hutu government.

It is state power that has fallen into the hands of cruel and cynical people that represents the most serious threat to the security of citizens.

When they allow power to be usurped by a criminal politician, party or junta, citizens risk losing everything — from property rights and the right to freedom of thought to the right to life.  But criminal politics do not begin with criminal intent — no, there are always ‘lofty goals’ and ‘noble motives,’ such as reviving the greatness of a nation, protecting its sovereignty, or battling an internal enemy.  That is why ordinary officials who simply follow instructions and carry out orders so easily become involved in criminal politics.

Repression develops gradually.  It is impossible to predict when the restriction of rights and the prosecution of dissent will turn into concentration camps and executions.  History teaches us that such a transformation is possible even in the most cultured and civilized societies – subject to the appropriate state policy and propaganda.

That is why we need freedom of speech – to sound the alarm in time.  Independent media, journalists, opposition politicians and activists are essential in order promptly to warn the ruling majority:  ‘Hey!  Look what’s going on!  You’re moving onto a slippery slope!’  That’s why the main object of criticism by the media has been and always will be the state – which is a system of power with a coercive apparatus capable of becoming a tool of mass repression.

I am not afraid to criticise the state.

I am not afraid to criticise the law-enforcement system and to tell security officers that sometimes they are wrong.  Because I know that if I say nothing, and if no-one else says anything, then the situation will become really dreadful.

I do not claim to have the one true opinion – there is no such thing.  Anyone can make mistakes, and criticism is not always justified.  But it is better to allow criticism, even unreasonable criticism, than not to allow it at all.  The more ideas we discuss, the wider the range of opinions that is put forward, the easier it will be for society to make the right decision and choose the best path of development.  And the easier it will be to avoid a new humanitarian catastrophe, against which humanity is, alas, not protected.

I ask the honourable court, when deciding on my criminal case, to take account not only of written statements and documents, but also the fundamental principles on which our society is built.  These are freedom of speech, the status of the journalist, and the mission of the press.  I did my job.  I did nothing that went beyond the borders of my professional duty.  No criminal activity was involved.

Translated by Elizabeth Teague

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