Prosecutors crack down on Russian NGOs

Russian non-governmental organisations are facing a wave of state inspections, which some believe are taking place as  revenge for united protests against a law classifying international NGOs as “foreign agents”.

The list of NGOs visited by prosecutors and other inspectors during last days, is impressive: Transparency International, Amnesty International, Memorial, Moscow Helsinki Group, Human Rights Watch, Agora, For Human Rights (Za prava cheloveka), GOLOS, and numerous regional NGOs.

Even regional organisation Shield and Sword of Chuvashiya, which actually appealed to the Ministry of Justice seeking “foreign agents” status, has received a notification of an inspection.

According to the law, an NGO that receives financing from abroad, has to register as “foreign agent” or face criminal charges. “Foreign agents” are obliged to mark the literature and online content they produce as “distributed by foreign agent”. The law stipulates that they have to report to inspection bodies far more often than organisations that do not receive financing from abroad. The frequency of “foreign agents” inspections is not limited by the law. Russian authorities have gained a legal tool for paralysing NGOs they don’t like simply by swamping them with inspections.

Several human rights NGOs unanimously concluded the law doesn’t comply with justice and the constitution and made a decision to boycott it by not registering as foreign agents.

Many of them came through planned inspections by the Ministry of Justice this winter – not as “foreign agents”, just as NGOs – to face extraordinary prosecutors’, tax, sanitary and other authorities’ inspections in March.

Russian veteran rights activist, head of “For Human Rights” organization Lev Ponomarev refused to provide prosecutors with the organisation’s documentation. He says, according to the law about, prosecutors had to provide him with information about violations of law by his organisation – such information being supposedly the only purpose for their sudden extraordinary inspections.

Prosecutors still haven’t provided NGOs with this information.

But the General prosecutor’s office representative Marina Gridneva has said the prosecutors “act in compliance with the law”.

President Vladimir Putin, replying to Russian ombudsman Vladimir Lukin concerns over the inspections, said these “are routine measures linked to the desire of the law enforcement agencies to bring the activities of organisations in line with the law.”

Political scientist Dmitry Oreshkin told Index on Censorship that the authorities aim to emphatically close one of Russian human rights NGO “or make it hysterical” in order to chill others.

“The authorities think the problem will be solved, when someone shuts down in fear” said Oreshkin. “Lev Ponomarev has survived the Soviet era fighting for human rights, he knows the law better than law enforcement bodies, and he is not likely to be the one to fulfill the authorities’ expectations by fearing them.”

The authorities, according to Oreshkin, are demonstrating incompetence and incapability.

“The NGO boycott obviously enraged the Kremlin. Human rights activists, more than anyone else, now how crucially solidarity is.”

The state’s inconsistence, demonstrated during the ongoing NGOs inspections is based on a wrong perception of the word “law”, Oreshkin claims:

“The law concerns a citizen and an authority; the authorities have passed laws against citizens hoping they won’t have to keep within the law themselves”.

New TV advertisements play on fears of foreigners in Egypt

In recent days a series of controversial public service announcements aired on state-owned TV channels in Egypt, angering Egyptians and foreigners alike. The advertisements, which warn Egyptians against talking to foreigners “because they might be spies”, have been slammed for being “shallow” and inflammatory.

In one of the advertisements, a foreign man walks into a cafe and inconspicuously joins a group of young Egyptians at their table. They go on to discuss Egypt’s current situation in front of the stranger — complaining about high prices, the gas shortage, and other social and economic problems plaguing the country. They also tell the English-speaking stranger about a reported conspiracy against the army, which he immediately tweets to an unknown third party. Sinister background music alerts viewers of an ominous threat, as the voiceover warns that “every word has a price” and that one word could “endanger a nation”.

In another advertisement, Egyptian job seekers are advised not to apply for jobs posted on job vacancy sites online.

“You never know who may use the information you post online and for what purpose”, cautions the advert.

Both advertisements were broadcast intermittently over the past week on all state-run TV channels, as well as a few privately-owned channels, raising concerns that they may restrict freedom of expression and exacerbate xenophobia in the country.

Facebook user Mayssa Mokhtar expressed fear that “the TV campaign may pave the way for another crackdown by the state on foreign journalists covering the ongoing protests”.

Many turned to social networking sites to express their anger. Pharmacist Mahmoud Nour wrote in a Facebook post that “the commercials would not help the tourism industry — Egypt’s main foreign currency earner — which has already been dealt a blow by the political instability over the past year and a half.”

The advertisement has now been pulled from the air, but the campaign is not the first time that state-controlled media has issued warnings about the alleged danger posed by foreigners to Egypt. During last year’s uprising, talk show hosts on state-run TV channels reportedly accused “foreign conspirators” of fomenting the unrest. Such accusations prompted attacks by angry protesters on foreign visitors and journalists attempting to cover protests in Tahrir Square.

The 11 February sexual assault on CBS reporter Lara Logan by a mob of men near the Egyptian Museum sparked international outrage, but it was not an isolated incident. Throughout the 18 days of last year’s uprising and protests since, many foreign journalists have faced both intimidation and suspicion over their coverage of unrest. Many have complained of being beaten, chased away or accused of being “foreign agents” and “spies”. In most cases, attackers were Mubarak supporters or anti-regime protesters nervous about the increased presence of foreigners in Tahrir Square. At times, those targeting foreign journalists were policemen or security officers in plainclothes.

Last June’s arrest of American-Israeli law student Ilan Grapel, who was accused of being an Israeli spy, further fuelled anti-foreigner sentiments. Photos of Grapel were published in local newspapers, and the state-owned Al-Ahram identified him daily as a “Mossad officer who was trying to sabotage the Egyptian revolution”.

Grapel was released four months later in a prisoner exchange with Israel, but the anti-foreigner wave did not subside.

Last November, reports of USA-made teargas being used by security forces on protesters sparked another surge of attacks on foreign journalists.

More conspiracy theories swirled in the wake of arrests earlier this year of 16 Americans (among a group of 43 NGO workers) accused of illegally using foreign funds to foment unrest in the country. State-controlled media used the arrests to play on the fears of uneasy Egyptians, with one front page article titled, “American funding aims to spread anarchy in Egypt”.

On Friday, Egyptian pro-democracy activists were back in Tahrir Square protesting the acquittal of six security chiefs accused of ordering the killings of protesters during last year’s uprising. Their demands also included calls for a new election, and the formation of a civil presidential council to replace the ruling military regime next month. Several of those protesters described the new TV commercials as “another attempt by the military junta to stop free expression and to divert attention away from what is happening in Tahrir Square”.

“It is the same old tactics once again,” lamented Ibrahim Saleh, a 35 year-old civil engineer.

When in trouble, the military junta points the finger at the ‘foreign invisible hand’ blaming it for all our woes

Noha Alaa, another protester and tour guide, agreed that such claims were a distraction from the problems facing the country.

It’s worked before when the ruling military generals allowed activists to vent their fury on the Israeli Embassy. Why wouldn’t it work now?

Journalist Shahira Amin resigned from her post as deputy head of state-run Nile TV in February 2011. Read why she resigned from the  “propaganda machine” here.

Egypt: NGO offices raided by security forces

Egyptian security forces reportedly raided the offices of at least seventeen local and international NGOs yesterday. Authorities confiscated files, computers and records from the human rights and pro-democracy organisations. The raided organisations all allegedly receive foreign funding, and are now under investigation for violating Egyptian law. Staff of the organisations were confined to their officers during the raid, and prevented from using their mobile phones or computers. US officials have condemned the attacks, and demanded that the Egyptian government “resolve this issue immediately and to end harassment of NGO staff as well as return all property”.

Free Microsoft licences to help combat censorship

Microsoft is extending its program of giving free software licences to non-profit organisations. The initiative was first applied to Russia, after it was discovered that authorities were using software piracy inquiries as a method of suppressing independent media outlets and advocacy groups. The program will now include 500,000 NGOs in Armenia, Azerbaijan, Belarus, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan, Turkmenistan, Uzbekistan, China, Malaysia, and Vietnam. Prior to the announcement NGOs could only obtain a free licence if they were aware of the program and followed the necessary procedure. According to Microsoft’s official blog announcement, the unilateral licence will last until 2012.