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09.10.2017

Editor unjustifiably restrained for Chechnya articles, caused a ‘chilling effect’

by Emil Weber

The conviction of a Russian editor for inciting enmity through the dissemination of two articles amounted to freedom of expression violation, the European Court of Human Rights (ECtHR) decided on Tuesday. The articles were supposedly written by Chechen leaders.

Chechnya: chilling effect Flag of the Republic of Chechnya

Mr. Stanislav M. Dmitriyevskiy, editor in chief of the monthly newspaper “Pravo-Zashchita” (Protection of Rights) based in Nizhny Novgorod is also the director of the human rights non-governmental monitoring organisation, the “Russian-Chechen Friendship Society”. In early 2004 he republished two articles in his small regional newspaper which were taken from the website Chechenpress.

In the first article, Mr.Akhmed Zakayev, the deputy Prime Minister of the Chechen Republic, criticised the Kremlin policy on Chechnya and called on readers to vote against President Vladimir Putin in the Russian elections. In the second article, Mr. Aslan Maskhadov, the then President of the Republic, described the Chechen version of the Republic’s relations with Russia throughout history.

At the time Mr.Maskhadov and Mr.Zakayev were wanted by the Russian authorities on criminal charges in relation to their activities as leaders of the separatist movement in Chechnya.

"Inciting enmity"

In February 2006 the newspaper editor/activist, Mr.Dmitriyevskiy, was criminally convicted and given a two-year suspended sentence and four years’ probation by a judge at the Sovetskiy District Court of Nizhniy Novgorod. According to the verdict, the republished articles “contained statements aimed at inciting enmity and humiliating the dignity of a group of persons on the grounds of race, ethnic origin and membership of a certain social group”.  Later that same year the regional court upheld that decision.

However, the 2017 ECtHR ruling said that the restraint on Mr. Dmitriyevskiy was unjustified in a democratic society where limits to criticise the government are wider compared to criticism of private individuals. 

The ECtHR Third Section unanimously decided that Mr.Zakayev’s first article, despite being critical of Kremlin and President Vladimir Putin, contained “no appeals to violence, rebellion or forcible overthrow of the existing political regime”. “On the contrary, it suggests that a conflict can be resolved in a peaceful manner if the Russian people ‘get rid’ of those politicians through a democratic process, by voting Mr. Putin out at the forthcoming presidential election”, the judgement reads.

"Controversial and virulent"

The court said that Mr.Maskhadov’s second republished article contained more “strongly worded statements”. However, according to the ECtHR, “it is an integral part of freedom of expression to seek the historical truth, and a debate on the causes of acts of particular gravity which may amount to war crimes or crimes against humanity should be able to take place freely”. It also said that is in the nature of the political speech to be “controversial and often virulent”.

The top European human rights court said that the fact that Mr.Zakayev and Mr.Maskhadov were wanted on criminal charges and the fact that the articles represented a one-sided view were insufficient reasons to justify interference with the freedom of expression.

“They (the articles) had newsworthy content which allowed the public to…have an insight into the psychology of those who were the driving force behind the opposition to official policy in the Chechen Republic”, said the judgment.

The ECtHR found it “unacceptable” that the domestic ruling on Mr. Dmitriyevskiy relied on a linguistic expert’s insights, saying that “all legal matters must be resolved exclusively by the courts”. It further said that the articles were published in a regional newspaper with low circulation and that the Russian court had itself found that “there had been no ‘serious consequences’” from the actions of Mr. Dmitriyevskiy.

 “The Court considers that both the applicant’s conviction and the severe sanction imposed were capable of producing a chilling effect on the exercise of journalistic freedom of expression in Russia and dissuading the press from openly discussing matters of public concern, in particular, those relating to the conflict in the Chechen Republic”, the ruling said.

The Third Section awarded Mr. Dmitriyevskiy 13,615 euros in non-pecuniary damages and proceedings costs.

Case of Dimitriyevskiy v. Russia, application no. 42168/06. 3 October 2017





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