6 August 2020
The Russia Behind Bars foundation for the assistance of convicted persons is launching a campaign called “Anti-hater.” The aim is to develop ways to defend NGOs that have been subjected to hate attacks on social networks and on other information platforms, including the mass media, in the courts.
Olga Romanova, director of Russia Behind Bars and laureate of the Moscow Helsinki Group award, has written about this on Facebook
Svetlana Kuzevanova, senior lawyer at the Media Rights Defence Centre, explains that: “Any NGO has the legal right to defend its reputation if defamatory information is spread about it. For such a claim to be satisfied, it is necessary to prove that the disseminated information is untrue, that it is defamatory, that it relates to the activities of the organisation in question, and that it was published as a statement of fact. Opinions and subjective evaluations cannot be challenged in court.”
Galina Arapova, leading lawyer and director of the Media Rights Defence Centre, said that, over the past 20 years, an extensive practice of legal mechanisms for protecting the right to honour, dignity and reputation has taken shape: each year, some 4,000 to 4,500 civil cases are heard in the courts of the Russian Federation. The Plenum of the Supreme Court of the Russian Federation has adopted a ruling on such cases, taking account of decisions of the European Court of Human Rights among others. As a relatively new phenomenon, however, hatred does not always fit into the category of defamation. “For that reason,” Arapova says, “the existing legal mechanisms are not always applicable and effective in the fight against hatred. The Anti-hater campaign can therefore be very useful, especially if it will not restrict itself solely to legal mechanisms.”
Arapova explained that the mechanisms for protecting honour and dignity are varied. They include, among other things, extrajudicial mechanisms, such as the right to reply, the right to refutation, and the ability to appeal to the self-regulating body of the media community — the Press Complaints Council, a non-government body.
The Press Complaints Council has recently considered several disputes where NGOs or individual human rights defenders were targets of attacks broadcast by federal TV channels. These include, among others, the complaint brought by the Memorial Human Rights Centre against the News Front news agency, the complaints brought by several independent media outlets against REN TV in connection with the programme “State Department Pawns”, the complaint brought by the Perm-36 museum about topics from the programmes “Emergency Incident” [ChP or Chrezvychainoe proisshestvie] and “Profession —reporter” broadcast by NTV.
“In practice, the result of a case depends greatly on the status of the defendant and the ongoing crisis in the independence of the judiciary,” Arapova says. “Therefore, whenever federal TV channels spread openly defamatory and propagandistic stories about human rights organisations, the question always arises as to which means of protection should be used — judicial or extrajudicial. The courts have often proved ineffective, since the courts have openly come out in favour of the state channels, passing very controversial decisions.”
As an example of cases where the courts have sided with state officials, rather than with human rights defenders, Arapova cited the lawsuit brought by the Memorial Human Rights Centre against REN-TV concerning a report in which Memorial was accused of supposedly telling children that Hitler had introduced “European values” to the USSR. A similar situation arose in the case brought by Ramzan Kadyrov against the head of Memorial, Oleg Orlov, after the latter accused the Chechen leader of being politically responsible for the assassination of [human rights defender] Natalya Estemirova.
“Unlike court decisions, however, the decisions of the Press Complaints Council do not come with a compulsory enforcement mechanism. It is important here to call things by their true names and give a balanced assessment of controversial information accusing journalists of violating the norms of professional ethics and international standards. The mechanisms of protection against attacks on social networks are much less developed and, unfortunately, less effective, and depend largely on the policies of the administrators of the social networks themselves,” Arapova explained.
Translated by Elizabeth Teague