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Russia undermines freedom of expression ‘both domestically and abroad,’ US says

Ambassador Trevor Traina, Chargé d'Affaires Nicole Shampaine and Chargé d'Affaires Harry Kamian (Simone Kantz/U.S. Embassy Vienna)

This article was originally published by Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty and is reprinted with permission.

Russia is working to subvert free speech both at home and abroad, and is stepping up pressure on its independent media, the United States has warned at a meeting of the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE).

Washington also called for the release of both Russian and foreign journalists detained in Russia and in the area controlled by Russia-backed separatists in eastern Ukraine, and voiced deep concern over reports of intimidation and threats against the independent newspaper Novaya Gazeta.

“Both domestically and abroad, the Russian Federation seeks to undermine freedom of expression, and independent journalism is increasingly under pressure in Russia,” U.S. Charge d’Affaires Harry Kamian told the Permanent Council meeting of the OSCE in Vienna on November 22.

Kamian called for the release of Ukrainian National News Agency journalist Roman Sushchenko and Ukrainian film director Oleh Sentsov, “just two of the more than 70 Ukrainians unjustly imprisoned in occupied Crimea and Russia,” the U.S. mission to the OSCE said in a statement.

On June 4, the Moscow City Court found Sushchenko guilty of espionage and sentenced him to 12 years in a strict-regime prison. Sushchenko maintains his innocence, saying the case against him is politically motivated.

Sentsov, a Crimean native who opposed Russia’s 2014 takeover of the Ukrainian peninsula, is serving a 20-year prison term after being convicted of terrorism in a trial that he, rights groups, and Western governments contend was politically motivated. He ended a nearly five-month hunger strike in a Russian prison in early October.

“We also call on the Russian Federation to secure the release of Stanislav Aseyev, a journalist for Radio Liberty, who has been held captive in the so-called ‘Donetsk People’s Republic’ since June 2017,” the U.S. statement said.

Aseyev, who has reported for various Ukrainian media outlets, also contributes to RFE/RL’s Ukraine Service and writes under the name Stanislav Vasin.

He disappeared in Donetsk on June 2, 2017, and weeks later, Amnesty International said it had received information that Aseyev was being held by the self-styled security agents of the separatists.

The statement said that the United States was “also troubled” by the November 7 court decision to keep Zhalaudi Geriyev, an independent journalist from the Chechnya region, behind bars on “baseless drug charges.”

Geriyev was sentenced to three years in prison in 2016 for illegal drug possession, a charge he has denied from the very beginning.

The Moscow-based human rights center Memorial has recognized Geriyev as a political prisoner and New York-based Human Rights Watch has said he was being “punished” for his work as a journalist.

The United States also expressed “deep concern by the reports of intimidation and death threats directed at Novaya Gazeta journalists, who have recently received, among other menacing messages, a funeral wreath and a severed goat’s head.”

Nine live sheep were left outside the independent newspaper’s Moscow offices on October 29, after it published allegations that Yevgeny Prigozhin, a businessman with Kremlin ties, was involved in attacks on his opponents, including at least one killing.

Earlier in October, unknown people left a basket containing a severed ram’s head and red carnations at the newspaper’s office, followed days later by a funeral wreath sent to the home of one of its journalists, with a note calling him “a traitor to his country.”

Novaya Gazeta has had five of its reporters killed since 2000 for their work.

Washington also shares the OSCE’s “concerns over the high fines imposed on [the independent] The New Times [online news outlet] for its alleged ‘violations’ of Russia’s so-called Foreign Agents law,” the statement said.

On October 22, a Moscow court imposed fines of 22,250,000 rubles ($339,000) against The New Times and 30,000 rubles ($457) against the website’s editor, Yevgenia Albats, for allegedly failing to comply with financial-reporting obligations under Russia’s controversial “foreign agents” law.

The U.S. mission to the OSCE delivered the statement in response to a report by the OSCE representative on media freedom, Harlem Desir.