Institute That Acts as Venue for Free Speech Faces Eviction
By Vladimir Kovalev
The Regional Press Institute that for almost a decade has been a center for free speech has been asked to leave the premises it has rented in St. Petersburg House of Journalists for 11 years.
The institute has been a venue for independent analysts, politicians, journalists and environmentalists to express their views on current events and critics of the eviction see forces that want to silence them behind the move.
In a letter signed by Andrei Bakunin, head of the St. Petersburg Union of Journalists and dated Nov. 11, the institute was notified that it should leave the building at 70 Nevsky Prospekt by Dec. 5, said Anna Sharogradskaya, the head of the institute.
The letter was put on her desk last Wednesday while she was on a business trip, she said Monday.
That was less than three weeks before the institute"s rental contract expires, despite the contract stipulating that any request to leave the premises should give three months" notice, she said.
"The most important point is our activity, that we have worked with journalists and for journalists for 11 years and I believe there should have been some serious reasons to justify issuing such an order to force us leave the premises in a rush, without talking to me," Sharogradskaya said in a telephone interview.
"Our institute represents a place where different opinions can be expressed," she added. "We understand the constitutional regulation on freedom of speech literally and try to fulfill it."
"I have made remarks that could have irritated certain people, who have the power to take the kind of decisions that could force a person who is not independent enough and who, probably, tried to resist somehow, to throw us out of the House of Journalists," Sharogradskaya said.
However, Bakunin said the institute was being ejected for financial reasons and that he wants to organize the House of Journalists so that it makes a profit.
"Letters were sent to all tenant organizations in the House of Journalists and the Regional Press Institute is just one of them," he said Monday in a telephone interview. "This is being done in order to find an investor that would get busy with this building."
"This is doesn"t mean they will definitely be asked to leave the building right away, but rather that they sign some short-term rental agreements, for three months, for instance, until an investor is found," Bakunin said. "Nobody would put them out on the street with a stick and a bag behind their shoulders."
"This is purely economic, but it looks like this is fashionable to look for a political reason in such cases ... otherwise life wouldn"t be that interesting," he said.
In its more than decade of operations, the Regional Press Institute has became known as a place where open-minded journalists who fell foul of officials or lost their job after a confrontation with authorities could find support.
The institute was almost the only venue where political opponents of Valentina Matviyenko, the Kremlin-backed candidate in last year"s gubernatorial elections, could talk about violations after the city media fell under almost total control of representatives of the presidential administration.
Matviyenko went on to become city governor.
Former vice-governor Anna Markova, the strongest opponent of Matviyenko, was able to speak at news conferences run by the institutes about the battle she faced getting coverage.
But Markova had little to say about the institute on Monday.
"I haven"t heard about it and can"t say anything," Markova said in a telephone interview.
City Hall"s Property Committee, which owns the building and has an agreement that lets the St. Petersburg Union of Journalists operate the building, said the city government has no involvement in the possible eviction of the press institute.
"This is between themselves," Tatyana Prosvirina, spokeswoman for the property committee said Monday in a telephone interview. "The building is operated by the St. Petersburg Union of Journalists.
"Now they are looking for an investor to provide its renovation," she added.
But people who worked with Sharogradskaya do not believe that commercial reasons are behind the decision.
"The Regional Press Institute is, in fact, the last place left [in the city] to provide public freedom for political organizations and parties in St. Petersburg that want to say things to citizens that would not be published in the media," Yuly Rybakov, local human rights advocate and former State Duma deputy, said Monday in a telephone interview.
"The termination of the rental contract is a political action undertaken in order to stamp out the last spark of freedom in the city," he said.
"Sharogradskaya was always critical in her comments about the governor [Matviyenko], was against her coming to City Hall and her position has certainly not been forgotten," he added. "Obviously this is a politically motivated decision to shut down the last stage where democrats would have been able to say at least something."
Oleg Bodrov, a member of Green World, a local environmental organization, who has repeatedly used the institute to present his views sounded shocked after being told he news.
"I believe the Regional Press Institute is a window that allows points of views on any problems in Russian society to be expressed," he said. "It is the stage to talk about problems with nuclear power stations, about violations of human rights.
"I think it is another step to destroy democracy which has been being done by the president [Vladimir Putin]," Bodrov said.
The St.Petersburg Times
#1023, Tuesday, November 23, 2004