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Russia28 September 2007

Saratov-based newspaper threatened with closure over cartoon of Putin as Soviet spy in Nazi uniform

Reporters Without Borders today called on the regional court of the southern city of Saratov to act judiciously and avoid being manipulated when it rules on 2 October on a bid by the pro-Putin United Russia party to get the Saratovsky Reporter newspaper closed for “insulting” President Putin in a cartoon on its front page.

The cartoon, published on 31 August, was a montage that imposed Putin’s face on a photograph of Otto von Stirlitz, a fictional Soviet spy in Nazi Germany who was the leading character of a popular Russian TV series “17 Moments Of Spring.”

“Under no circumstances does an insult constitute acceptable grounds for closing a news media,” Reporters Without Borders said. “The right to insolence and excess is an integral part of press freedom. As for the cartoon itself, the complaint mentions only that it shows President Putin in a Nazi uniform. It ignores that fact that Stirlitz was an extremely popular character and that the cartoon alludes to Putin’s years as a KGB intelligence officer in East Germany.”

The complaint against the newspaper was brought by one of United Russia’s representatives, Alexandre Lando, under article 319 of the criminal code concerning “insulting a state representative.” Lando said the cartoon was “offensive to the president and to [me] as a voter. The region’s directorate for cultural affairs said that it has withdrawn the newspaper’s licence as a result of the complaint.

The prosecutor wrote to Saratovsky Reporter editor Sergei Mikhailov informing him that the newspaper had been given two warnings, one of which concerned an article published on 23 February. The newspaper insists it never received any notification of this. Under Russia’s law on extremism, a court can order a newspaper’s closure after it has been given two warnings.

Mikhailov told privately-owned Radio Echo of Moscow that the aim of these measures was to put an end to press freedom in Saratov, and he could not sit back and let it happen.

The 23 February article was about inter-ethnic relations in Russia. An expert report issued by a Saratov university at the prosecutor’s request deemed it to be “offensive” to the Jewish community.

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