In anticipation of Russian President Vladimir Putin’s visit to France today, Reporters Without Borders activists joined with Russian, Syrian and Iranian activists in staging a demonstration in Paris at midday against the crackdowns under way in Russia, Syria and Iran. The starting point for the demonstration was Pont Alexandre III, a bridge named after a 19th century Russian Tsar.
Chanting “Putin, Bashar, stop the repression” and “No veto on human rights,” the protesters urged the Russian leader to heed the calls to democratize Russian society and stop supporting the world’s most repressive regimes, starting with Syria and Iran, two countries where journalists pay dearly for trying to cover government-orchestrated crackdowns.
“Putin is not just responsible for the dramatic loss of freedoms in Russia in the past decade,” Reporters Without Borders said. “Censorship and repression are also an integral part of the political ‘model’ he promotes internationally.
“On the pretext of combating terrorism or promoting ‘traditional values,’ Russia plays a leading role in efforts to suppress freedom of expression and information in many international bodies. It is with Moscow’s complicity that the massacres have continued in Syria for more than 14 months and it is with Moscow’s support that the crackdown continues in Iran.”
Putin was due to arrive in France this afternoon, after visiting Belarus and Germany. This is his first international trip since the start of his third term as president. The agenda for his talks in Paris with French President François Hollande includes the situation in Syria as well as energy and trade.
Repressive heritage disputed in Russia
“This visit comes at a remarkable time in Russia,” Reporters Without Borders said. “Putin has had to confront an unprecedented wave of unrest since his election, one that highlights the widening gap between the regime and Russian society.
“The election campaign and his installation were accompanied by repeated intimidation of the media and suppression of peaceful demonstrations. In a frank and sincere dialogue, Putin would have to be told that this new mandate is his last chance to break with the repressive system he has created, both at home and abroad.”
Putin’s first two terms, from 2000 to 2008, were marked by reassertion of control over most media, especially TV stations, total impunity for violence against journalists (of whom at least 26 have been killed in connection with their work since 2000) and imposition of an autocratic and brutal regime in Chechnya headed by his protégé, Ramzan Kadyrov. This heritage has been challenged by the unprecedented protests since December 2011.
Within the United Nations, Russia blocks all binding resolutions on human rights and, together with China, Tajikistan and Uzbekistan, is promoting a resolution that would give member states a free hand to censor the Internet. In the UN Human Rights Council, Russia is heading a coalition of states that are trying to use “traditional values” and national idiosyncrasies as pretexts for disputing the universality of human rights.
The fact that Putin reserved Belarus’s authoritarian regime the honour of receiving the first international visit of his new mandate says volumes about his commitment to human rights. Belarus saw a violent crackdown after a presidential election in December 2010 and more than 100 journalists were arrested in 2011 alone.
Open complicity in Syria
The Syrian government has been massacring its civilian population for 14 months with Russia’s complicity. Moscow continues to oppose any sanctions against Damascus, despite many appeals from the international community. It is no longer possible to keep track of all the civilian casualties. They include many journalists, who have been paying a high price.
The terms of a 12 April ceasefire that UN special envoy Kofi Annan negotiated between the government and opposition forces included freedom of the media, freedom of assembly and the release of all political prisoners. It was never respected. Despite an international observer presence, 108 people were slaughtered last weekend in Houla. No one was convinced by Bashar al-Assad’s insistence that his soldiers and militiamen, the notorious shabiha, were not to blame.
Ever since the start of the protests in March 2011, Assad and his regime have imposed a complete news blackout while stepping up their own propaganda. Journalists, bloggers and ordinary citizens and activists acting as journalists have been paying a high price for their determination to cover the atrocities taking place. Many, including four foreign reporters, have been killed.
Journalists, bloggers and activists are systematically tracked down, arrested and tortured. Ordinary citizens who are contacted by foreign media are also arrested and convicted. More than 30 professional and amateur journalists are currently detained. And all the while, Moscow continues to support this brutal regime and to sell it arms.