Have you ever heard of Russian Pussy Riot, the female punk singers who might be condemned for seven years in prison for anti-government songs in a church in Moscow? Or the Kiev journalist movement "Stop Censorship"? Freedom of speech still has its huge price and you can see it quite well in the Eastern Europe following the stories of some brave women.
I met Russian journalist Maria Eismont – columnist of „Vedemosty”, considered as a kind of Russian "Financial Times”, during a conference in the EP about Media in Russia and Eastern Europe*. She talked to me about her work as a journalist over the last 20 years, about political opposition against president Vladimir Putin, and about the media situation in her country.
"No one in Russia is safe, including the journalists"- she said. "I don’t think that journalists are targeted especially. Everybody is targeted because the police is corrupt and the court system is absolutely dead".
Exemple? Maria told me about Pussy Riot, the female punk band whose members were arrested in March for performing an anti-Putin song in Moscow’s largest orthodox cathedral. That was their way to protest against the church support for Vladimir Putin’s presidential campaign.
Now three group members are facing up to seven years in jail if found guilty of hooliganism. In early July they started a hunger strike, protesting against what they consider to be their illegal treatment by Russian justice.
In Maria’s opinion, this story shows how the Orthodox Church and its close links with the Kremlin are still one of the big taboos of Russian society. “I’m in that infinite minority of people who support Pussy Riot even if I don’t like their music. Thanks to their punk prayer these girls became fighters for freedom of speech breaking a huge social taboo” – emphasized Maria.
However, even being very critical about Russia s government, my interlocutor is fairly low key when talking about the political situation in her country. “I can name you a couple of thousand people in Russia who criticize constantly the government and are still alive and in good health" – she noticed, adding that she was arrested once for several hours after participating in an opposition rally.
Another country, another story… I am sitting now in a Brussels café with Ukrainian Natalii Sokolenko, a young dark-haired woman who just came to Belgium for the same seminar. She is a daily special reporter for “Vikna-Novyny” a news programme of private TV station STB.
Proudly wearing her orange shawl – a souvenir of the famous Ukrainian revolution of 2004 – she is not only a journalist but also an activist with the “Stop Censorship” movement.
As she explains, this organisation has been fighting since May 2010 against current President Viktor Yanukovych whom they accuse of tampering with freedom of speech.
As the Euro 2012 was about to take off (these discussions were held at the beginning of June) we found ourselves discussing about former Prime Minister Youlia Timoshenko and other opposition members who currently in jail. Several European leaders have decided to boycott Ukraine’s Euro 2012 while considering Timoshenko’s process as politically inspired by the Ukrainian authorities.
Natalii argues that public TV is under the President's influence and doesn’t really even try to be impartial. “When you watch local public TV channels, you hear all the time: ‘Timoshenko is a criminal, she has to stay in prison’” – remarks Natalii, who supports Timoshenko’s release.
She shows me the “Kiev map of corruption”, prepared by “Stop censorship” movement. This is a plan of Ukraine’s capital with several buildings and sights singled out as the symbols of the officials’ corruption.
One of them is a presidential private residence, Mezhyhirya, in Vyshgorod , a luxury palace and estate (around 340 acres in total). As independent media report, there are a lot of suspicions about the fraud surrounding the acquisition of this residence by Yanukovych but the journalists are just not allowed to investigate them.
Natalii mentions the other cases of the high officials’ bribery and argues that some of their journalist colleagues were beaten by the police during the anti-government rallies.
Supporting Timoshenko's release, Natalii doesn’t wish that either her not former president Viktor Yushchenko – the ex-leader of Orange revolution – come back to power. In her opinion, both of them have already disappointed the Ukrainians.
“We need a new generation of politicians, a new revolution after the orange one in 2004” – says Natalii. The role of the Media in all this? “In fact, you can’t really trust the politicians, you should control them no matter which political camp they come from” – concludes Ukrainian journalist. Quite bitter, quite true, but certainly worth remembering.
* “The situation of the news media in Russia and the Eastern Partnership countries”. Journalist seminar co-organised by the European Parliament and the European Commission, 6 June 2012 in Brussels