Reporters Without Borders (RSF) condemns the disproportionate damages that the Saint Petersburg daily Delovoy Peterburg and three of its journalists have been ordered to pay to a university academic close to President Vladimir Putin, and the secretive way the case was heard.
On 15 May, a court in the Saint Petersburg district of Vasilyevsky Island ordered the newspaper to pay 4 million roubles (55,000 euros) in damages to Vladimir Litvinenko, the rector of Saint Petersburg Mining University, who brought a libel suit over reports about the university’s alleged misuse of state funding for the benefit of persons close to him.
The reporters who wrote the offending articles, Nadezhda Fedorova, Irina Pankratova and Natalya Kovtun, were ordered to pay an additional 1 million roubles (13,000 euros) while Transparency International’s Russia section, which also published a report on the same subject, was ordered to pay 5 million roubles.
At Litvinenko’s request, the case was heard behind closed doors on the pretext of protecting his privacy. After the court issued its decision, the newspaper’s lawyers accused the judge of taking no account of their arguments. Delovoy Peterburg and Transparency International say they plan to appeal and are ready to take the case to the European Court of Human Rights.
Litvinenko is known as Russia’s richest university rector and has even appeared in Forbes magazine’s latest rankings of the world’s richest billionaires. He oversaw Putin’s university dissertation in the 1990s and has run Putin’s Saint Petersburg campaign for every presidential election since 2000.
“It is hard to believe in the fairness of proceedings from which reporters were barred, and in the impartiality of a judge who ignores the defence’s arguments although the reporting covered the activities of a very influential person,” RSF said.
“These disproportionate damages awards are designed solely to deter journalists from doing investigative reporting on subjects that are in the public interest. They must be overturned on appeal.”
Delovoy Peterburg published its series of articles about the Mining University’s alleged misuse of state funding in November 2016, while Transparency International published its report a month later. Litvinenko nonetheless waited until September 2017 to file his suit seeking a total of 65 million roubles in damages, including 30 million (400,000 euros) from Delovoy Peterburg.
Created in 1993, Delovoy Peterburg is one of the leading newspapers in the Saint Petersburg region. After changing hands several times, it has been owned by the oligarch Grigori Beryozkin since December 2017. Shortly after Beryozkin bought it, several former regional officials were appointed to key positions in the newspaper, while its editor, Maxim Vasyukov, resigned in January 2018.
Russia is ranked 148th out of 180 countries in RSF's 2018 World Press Freedom Index