June 23 - June 29, 2016

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Unusual Humor of Russian Investigative Journalist Leads to Imprisonment

 

By CNS Staff
Capital News Service

COLLEGE PARK, MD—Serghey Reznik is the kind of reporter who would call a female judge a crocodile or quip that a prosecutor was nothing more than a tractor driver.

He intentionally humiliated sources, Nadezda Azhgikhina, executive secretary of the Russian Union of Journalists, told Capital News Service, “joking on their weaknesses or their not-so-nice appearance.” Some journalists’ union members didn’t like him.

On Nov. 26, 2013, he was sentenced to 18 months in a prison colony, which was then increased to three years in January 2015 after new charges were filed.

About a year later, while he was serving time at the No. 1 Detention Center in Russia’s Rostov region, the union granted Reznik his membership card.

“The fact that Reznik is a disgusting person doesn’t mean he was dangerous to society, that he should be detained and excluded from society,” Azhgikhina said. “The fact that he is in jail, everyone understands is a violation and is very unfair. It was fake—a fake case.”

During the same trial in which he was found guilty of insulting a public figure, Reznik was also tried for bribing a car mechanic to pass inspection and reporting false harassment threats to the police.

In response to questions about his conviction from CNS, Reznik maintained his humor, writing that when he heard his sentence, he “realized that my success is recognized at the national level.”

Azhgikhina, who is also vice president of the European Federation of Journalists, said his case highlights the misuse of the judicial system in Russia to silence government critics.

“He will be in jail until he will agree to the rules of the game,” a former Russian television correspondent, who requested anonymity because he works in the government, said in an interview. “The rules are simple. If you are a journalist, you should cover officials only in positive way.”

‘A Trojan Horse’

The judge asked Reznik to introduce himself before the packed courtroom.

“Reznik, Serghey: Repressed,” he answered.

Reznik is well-known for his investigations of corruption among senior government officials and local law enforcement.

These investigations are the real reason he was brought before the court, according to many non-profit media advocacy groups, including the Committee to Protect Journalists and the International Federation of Journalists, which have denounced his sentence.

“He was successful in spreading information on some violations of law in Rostov region,” said Sergey Davidis, head of political prisoner advocacy for the Human Rights Center “Memorial” in Moscow. “They didn’t like it, and they tried to shut him up.”

Reznik often published stories exposing corruption in the Rostov police force, which is considered to be among the worst in the country. In Russia, about 45 percent of crimes go unsolved, President Vladimir Putin said in 2013.

“Catastrophic staffing problems are found every day in the ranks of the (Rostov-on-Don) police,” Reznik wrote in a 2013 article. “The question arises … are all these people qualified?”

Rostov Governor Vasily Golubev was another one of Reznik’s targets. When the governor took steps to privatize the regional energy industry, Reznik wrote the headline: “The criminal energy or ‘pension fund’ of Governor Golubev?”

The charges against Reznik are “incomprehensible,” according to Reporters Without Borders, which has closely monitored the case.

Prosecutors said Reznik bribed a technical assistant at the Fomina Auto Repair Shop with 2,000 rubles—about $45—in exchange for letting Reznik drive off in his Hyundai Elantra XD without a vehicle inspection.

“I’m absolutely sure there are no similar crime charges in all of Russia,” said Davidis, whose organization named Reznik one of more than 80 political prisoners in Russia. “Nobody is interested in catching and prosecuting such so-called criminals.”

The court also charged him with reporting false threats to police. Reznik and his wife reported to the police that they received a slew of threatening calls warning the journalist to stop publishing articles. The state asserted that the threats were made by Reznik’s friends at his request, and accused Reznik of trying to draw attention to himself.

“I still don’t know how that all got turned around on us,” his wife, Nataliya, said in an interview with CNS.

Her bewilderment was compounded on a cold October night in 2012 when Reznik was attacked around 10 p.m. outside their apartment complex. Two men armed with a gun and a baseball bat sent the now 40-year-old to the hospital with injuries to his head, neck and back.

“It’s a joke really,” Galina Arapova, director of Mass Media Defence Centre and one of the lawyers on Reznik’s case, said in an interview. “(Reznik) was beaten up seriously … and they believe he organized it himself … That’s just nonsense.”

The final charge came under Article 319 of the Criminal Code: publicly insulting a representative of authority.

Arapova describes his case as a Trojan Horse. The first two “absurd” charges served as a way to bring Reznik into court and assign him the hefty jail time that the last charge alone wouldn’t carry.

“What they do is initiate some simple criminal case, and then something else, and only then do they bring out ‘insult public officials’ and then unite all the charges,” she said.

A crass written submission to the court, in which Reznik defends his innocence on the bribery charges, brought the additional 18 months on—a second charge of insulting a public official and false reporting of a crime.

“He wrote that—he is a very emotional and impulsive person—if that policeman saw me giving money to the director of the car business, maybe I saw him being involved with sexual activity with a school boy,” Arapova recalled.

People have continued to post on Reznik’s blog since his arrest, often with updates on his case, although the government can block access to LiveJournal.

In 2014, Moscow enacted legislation allowing censors “to cut off public access to online sources suspected of extremism without a court sanction,” according to the State Department’s 2014 Human Rights Report on Russia.

The Federal Service for Oversight of Communication and Information Technology used the law that February to temporarily block LiveJournal, the State Department said in its report.

Despite that threat, one blogger posted a picture of Reznik, smirking in a leather jacket, as he was led out of the courtroom in handcuffs.

“He wrote about what is happening in the Rostov region, where they think they know everything, but are afraid to say! He was a fearless journalist who ridiculed our vicious and rotten power until the very last days!” one user, y_shatalov, posted. “He continues to make fun of all the pettiness of the system, showing her that she is rotten!”

‘There is no man, there is no problem’

Reznik’s imprisonment reflects a larger strategy by Russian President Vladimir Putin to eliminate criticism of his government. Press freedom is the “main target of Putin’s regime,” said Vladimir Kara-Murza, a former journalist and coordinator of the pro-democracy Open Russia party in Moscow.

Since 1992, some 56 journalists have been killed in Russia, according to data compiled by the Committee to Protect Journalists. Thirty-eight were killed since 2000, the year Putin was elected president and instituted a crackdown on freedom of expression.

“Stalin’s infamous saying, ‘There is no man, there is no problem,’ is still relevant to many people here,” Kara-Murza, who recovered in the United States after being poisoned in Moscow, said in an interview with CNS. He alleges someone within the government was behind the attack, which left the otherwise healthy 33-year-old in a coma for three weeks.

The Glasnost Defense Fund, which works to defend freedom of expression in Russia, said that in 2014 alone five Russian journalists were killed, 52 attacked, 107 detained, 200 prosecuted, 29 threatened and 15 fired for politically motivated reasons.

In the Rostov region, a heavily industrial area bordering Ukraine, at least three journalists have been killed since 2002, two of them in Reznik’s city of Rostov-on-Don.

Natalya Skryl, a business reporter for Rostov-on-Don’s Nashe Vremya newspaper, died from head injuries in 2002. She was attacked outside her home at night, and hit on the head “about a dozen times with a heavy, blunt object,” according to the Committee to Protect Journalists. Skryl had been investigating an “ongoing struggle for the control of Tagmet, a local metallurgical plant,” CPJ reported. She had recently obtained “sensitive information” about the story, the group said, which she planned to include in her story.

Vyacheslav Yaroshenko, the editor of Rostov-on-Don’s newspaper Korruptsiya i Prestupnost, died in 2009 after he “was found unconscious with a head wound in the entrance to his apartment building early in the morning,” according to CPJ.

The motive in his death is still unconfirmed, although his colleagues believe he was killed in retaliation for publishing stories about corruption within the Rostov law enforcement, CPJ reported. His publication’s name translates to “Corruption and Crime.”

In October 2012, Reznik also was attacked late at night outside his apartment complex. Two masked men—one armed with a baseball bat; the other with a gun—beat him. He was covered in red welts and hospitalized.

His wife was with him that night. She said he was clearly targeted.

“They didn’t attack me, they only attacked him,” said Nataliya. “I was standing next to him and they didn’t touch me.”

During his trial the following year, the prosecution said the two attackers were Reznik’s friends and that he had paid them to attack him to bring more attention to his work.

“The police did not search for the attackers,” Reznik wrote CNS from prison. “After all, it is the hardest to look for yourself.”

Russia ranks 10th on CPJ’s 2015 Global Impunity Index, which highlights countries where journalists are killed and their murderers go free.

“Regrettably, impunity for the murder of other journalists in Russia … contributes to a climate of fear and self-censorship and puts journalists’ safety at risk,” Daniel Baer, the U.S. Ambassador to the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe, said Nov. 5 at the OSCE Permanent Council in Vienna.

It takes “real courage” to be a journalist in Russia, Kara-Murza said.

“Journalists are being imprisoned, journalists are being threatened and too many journalists are being killed,” he said.

CPJ lists Reznik as the only imprisoned Russian journalist, though Russian media outlets have covered the case of another man from Rostov-on-Don.

Aleksandr Tolmachev, the editor of the magazine Upolnomochen Zayavit and the newspaper Pro Rostov, has been imprisoned since 2011 for extortion. In 2014, the seriously ill man was sentenced to nine years in a penal colony.

“The climate now is that everyone started to fear,” Reznik wrote from prison. “Naturally, many hands went down.”

It is not just journalists who feel pressure in Rostov, located nearly 600 miles from Moscow.

“There are some regions where there is more freedom and there are some tough regions,” said Memorial’s Davidis. “Rostov (is) a very tough region. It’s very difficult to oppose authorities there and it concerns not only journalists, but all opposition and activism. They have a lot of ways to fabricate reasons for criminal prosecution and they do it.”

Boris Batyy, a coordinator of the liberal “Solidarity” movement in Rostov-on-Don, was arrested after protesting Russia’s military actions in Ukraine, which borders the Rostov region, with a sign that said, “Putin, stop your lying and fighting!”

In November 2014, he was prosecuted for insulting police and publicly calling for extremism, according to The Caucasian Knot, a Russian news organization that covers politics and human rights. Batty says neither charge is the real reason he was arrested.

“One of the reasons political police put attention on me is because I made some comments on the posts about Serghey Reznik’s trial,” Batyy, who is seeking political asylum in Germany, said in an interview with CNS.

“I attended about 70 percent of his court hearings and I saw the lying, I saw the false trials,” he said. “There was just one aim: to deal with him.”

Authorities in such a remote region face little scrutiny in Russia or elsewhere, said journalists.

“Independent activities in the regions are harshly persecuted—I mean prosecuted, though those are the same things now. That’s especially true in the south,” Kara-Murza said. “Outside of Moscow and St. Petersburg it’s much more difficult for independent media, opposition politicians and civic activists to function, to live.”

‘Small islands of press freedom’

Through their television screens, the Russian people have been told that Kiev is under Nazi control; that there are no Russian forces in Ukraine; that the United States has deployed combat dolphins to the Black Sea to undermine the Russian government.

The Russian government or state-controlled companies own more than 60 percent of the country’s 45,000 registered local newspapers and periodicals, according to the U.S. State Department’s 2015 Human Rights Report on Russia. All six national television channels and 66 percent of the 2,500 television stations are completely or partially government owned, it said.

On July 21, 2014, Putin signed a law forbidding many non-state owned television companies from funding themselves through advertising.

Many newspapers have agreed, through “support contracts,” to provide positive coverage of government officials and policies in exchange for financial security. About 90 percent of print media relied on the state for printing, paper and distribution, according to the latest State Department report.

“We only have small islands of press freedom now,” Kara-Murza said. “Of course, the Internet is still free, thank God.”

But even on the web, there’s been a crackdown. From 2012 to 2013 the number of criminal proceedings against Russian bloggers doubled. It was during a period known as the “Snow Revolution,” where large-scale anti-Putin protests questioned the 2012 election’s legitimacy.

The Agora human rights group in Russia reported 226 criminal cases against registered Internet users in 2013, compared with 103 such cases in 2012.

The Russian media challenges “the very notion of balanced, fact-based reporting,” said Daniel Calingaert, the executive vice president of Washington-based Freedom House.

The United States, he believes, should try to change that.

The United States should provide “legitimate news coverage for countries who don’t have it,” Calingaert said. He said the United States should fund Russian-produced independent media and a Russian version of the non-

profit ProPublica online publication, which conducts investigative reporting.

Last January, a law restricting foreign ownership of media outlets to no more than 20 percent went into effect, according to the State Department’s latest report.

“Corruption is very widespread and goes to the highest levels of the Russian government,” he said. “There’s probably a lot that can be exposed that isn’t being exposed.”

In April, The International Consortium of Investigative Journalists found that as much as $2 billion had been secretly passed to banks and offshore companies linked to Putin’s confidants.

Novaya Gazeta participated in the global investigation. After its story was published, tax authorities began an investigation into whether any foreign grants were used for the project. Since 2000, five Novaya Gazeta reporters have been killed, according to CPJ.

Russian propaganda does not just affect Russian audiences but has repercussions on international relations, Calingaert said.

Since Russia invaded Ukraine, more than one-third of the airtime on Russia’s main official television channel has been devoted to Russia’s version of the intervention: Nazi occupation. No Russian forces. Secret U.S. dolphins.

“Russians bombarded for years with propaganda don’t have a clear picture of what’s really happening in the world or in their own country,” he said. “It makes it that much easier for their government to manipulate public opinion and to pursue policies dangerous to its country and its neighbors.”

Tom Malinowski, assistant secretary of the Bureau of Democracy, Human Rights, and Labor, discussed the issue at the United Nations in 2014.

“When media loyal to the Russian state relentlessly broadcasts such propaganda and Russian authorities shut down alternative sources of information, more and more people are lulled into thinking that black is white, up is down, and two plus two may equal five,” Malinowski said.

Groundhog Day

Reznik compares himself to Bruce Willis; close-cropped brown hair and a light stubble, “but I don’t shave my head,” he wrote to CNS.

He also draws on American pop culture to explain his life in prison.

“There is a wonderful American movie Groundhog Day,” he wrote from prison. “Lifting, breakfast, news, chat with the prisoners, books … so the days pass.”

For his wife, days are filled with worry. She knows her husband is an optimist but wonders whether the prison is worse than he lets on. He jokes with her that conditions are better than the summer camp he endured as a young boy.

“It is harder for me than it is for him,” she said. “He is strong, he is capable, he is resilient.”

Every two months the couple gets to speak through plexiglass. Every three months she can stay in prison with him for three days. Each time, he asks her to bring him newspapers.

Nataliya, a yoga instructor, communicates frequently with his lawyers, who are working to appeal. They plan to take his case to European Court of Human Rights, said his lawyer Tumas Misakyan.

“Why is he so dangerous, and why is he being eliminated in Rostov as a journalist? Misakyan said in an interview. “Because he wasn’t afraid to write.”

Once he is released from prison in October 2016, his sentence stipulates, he cannot practice journalism for two years. For Reznik, the restriction is a point of pride.

In 20 years, he wrote from prison, he has heard of only one other journalist who irritated the government enough to warrant such a prohibition.

“I find it unfair,” Reznik wrote, “that our names are not listed in the Guinness Book of Records.”

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Hoyer Announces Grants to the Maryland Fire and Rescue Institute and PG County Fire/EMS Department

By PRESS OFFICER
Office of Steny Hoyer

WASHINGTON, D.C.—Today, Congressman Steny H. Hoyer (MD-5) announced that Assistance to Firefighters Grant (AFG) funding will be awarded to the Prince George’s County Fire and Emergency Medical Services Department and the Maryland Fire and Rescue Institute. AFG is a program of the Department of Homeland Security’s Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA). The Prince George’s County Fire and Emergency Medical Services Department located in Upper Marlboro will receive $1,327,456, and the Maryland Fire and Rescue Institute in College Park will be awarded $500,000.

“I am pleased that both the Prince George’s County Fire/EMS Department and the Maryland Fire and Rescue Institute will receive this critical federal funding,” said Congressman Steny Hoyer. “The brave men and women of our fire departments are often the first responders on the scene of emergency incidents in our local communities, and these grants will help ensure they have the essential resources and training to keep Fifth District families and businesses safe. As Co-Chair of the Congressional Fire Services Caucus, I will continue to advocate for fire departments here in the Fifth District and throughout our state so that they have every tool necessary to do their jobs safely and effectively.”

AFG grants are awarded to fire departments, non-affiliated Emergency Medical Services organizations (EMS), and state fire training academies to assist with emergency response equipment, personal protective equipment, firefighting and emergency vehicles, and training.

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County Council Approves Prince George’s County FY2017 Budget

By Press Officer
PG County Government

Upper Marlboro, MD—The Prince George’s County Council approved the FY2017 Budget after a collaborative three-month process with the Baker Administration.  The budget reflects the shared commitments of the County Executive and County Council by making investments in core services that address the needs of communities across Prince George’s County.

“I want to personally thank Chairman Davis and Vice Chair Glaros for their leadership during this year’s budget process,” said Prince George’s County Executive Rushern L. Baker, III.  “The collaborative spirit shown by their leadership, along with the other members of the County Council, was clearly evident.”

Key investments in the approved Prince George’s County FY2017 Budget include:

• 150 new police officers;

• 70 new sworn fire fighters;

• 105 new sworn correctional officers;

• 25 new deputy sheriffs;

• $1.92 billion to the Prince George’s County Public School System;

• Nearly $3 million in additional funding for a comprehensive domestic violence initiative;

• $9 million for the Economic Development Incentive (EDI) Fund to attract and retain businesses;

• $52 million and $16 million over the next 2 years to support redevelopment efforts in Suitland and Glenarden communities, respectively;

• A new permitting system to improve the inspection and permitting review processes;

• $20 million in additional capital funding to improve County roadways; and

• $2 million in additional funding to reduce litter on County roadways.

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County Signs Business Agreement With Korean Trade Agency to Spur Mutual International Business Engagement
65 Korean and Prince George’s County Businesses Participated in Matchmaking Session

By Lori Valentine
PGCEDC

Largo, MD—On May 9th, the Economic Development Corporation and the Office of County Executive Rushern L. Baker, III welcomed high level leaders from the Republic of Korea and the Korea Trade-Investment Promotion Agency (KOTRA) as Prince George’s County and KOTRA signed a Memorandum of Understanding on Business Engagement Agreement (MOU).  More than 65 Korean and Prince George’s County businesses attended the MOU signing and business matchmaking event. Attendees were greeted by EDC President & CEO Jim Coleman, KOTRA Director General Jonggun Lee, Baker Administration Deputy Chief Administrative Officer for Economic Development David Iannucci and the Minister Counselor of Commerce and Energy Affairs from the Embassy of the Republic of Korea Chang Kyu Kim.

“Korea is a dynamic and rapidly growing economy that is a priority for County Executive Baker to build relationships and tap into the mutual opportunities that may be available between our two countries,” said EDC President & CEO Jim Coleman. “Today’s MOU signing and business matchmaking session will be just the beginning of a strong trading partnership with Korea. We hope to visit Korea in the near future to learn first-hand about business and international trade opportunities. So today I say AN NYEONG HA SE YO (Hello) to KOTRA and the Republic of Korea.”

The objectives of the MOU are to set up the framework for a Korean trade mission within the next 18 months and to energize mutual trade and investment opportunities with County businesses.

“County Executive Baker understands the importance of a global economy, which is why he launched his Prince George’s International! Initiative geared toward positioning Prince George’s County to be the Gateway to the U.S. Market,” said Iannucci.  “The Pacific region is one of the most important trading partner to the United States, and this type of international cooperation and communication is key to furthering those partnerships.  We welcome this type of connection on the County level.  This is how we plant the seed that will grow into a tree, that will grow into a forest and you all will become very wealthy.”

Partners to today’s MOU expressed confidence that this is a step in the right direction to assist Korean business import into the U.S. and increasing local business export to the world.

“It is a privilege and honor to be here in Prince George’s County,” said Minister Counselor Kim. “As the sixth strongest trading partner with the United States, Korea is focusing on its connectivity with the world by way of localized globalization: treating our international partners like local partners. This is the right time and right place for your partnership with KOTRA, and KOTRA is the right partner for Prince George’s County. Today’s MOU provides good momentum for further cooperation, good business matchmaking and good neighbors.”

After the MOU was signed, representatives from KOTRA provided an overview to the 27 local businesses and 22 Korean businesses on how to do business with Korea and KOTRA. The businesses also engaged in one-on-one business to business meetings, looking for potential partners and investors.

“KOTRA generally partners within the private and corporate structure to promote international trade with Korea,” said KOTRA Director General Jonggun Lee.  “After meeting with Mr. Coleman, we decided to make Prince George’s County our first local partner.”

For more information on international business development or exporting opportunities, contact Martin Ezemma (mezemma@co.pg.md.us) or 301-583-4650 or go to our website www.pgcedc.com.

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Capitol Heights Resident Completes Collegiate Journey Despite Adversities

By PRESS OFFICER
Bowie State University

Bowie, MD—Rachel Green, a graduating senior at Bowie State University, is slated to become the first in her family to successfully complete an undergraduate program later this month. A native of the Washington, D.C. Metropolitan area, Green mentions a revelation that she has come to realize as her graduation date nears, “My entire academic experience has been within Prince George’s County, from head start to my entire collegiate career.”  She goes on to explain that she has been to at least seven different elementary schools throughout the county, mostly because of constant moves initiated by the Department of Social Services’ Transitional Housing program. “It was tough, having to transfer schools constantly. I felt lost but understood that these decisions were beyond my control.”

On Monday May 23rd, Green became one of 650 graduates from Maryland’s oldest historically black university to receive their degrees. She notes that this accomplishment is yet another barrier broken within a family that lack adequate education. “In 2006, I became the first of my family to earn a high school diploma. My mother never made it through high school and only one of my three siblings actually stayed in school.” However, she reveals that it was not an easy task. “Eventually, I followed the pattern of my mother and older brother before me and dropped out of school at 16” she explains “I was unmotivated and ashamed of my family’s financial circumstance.” She recounts PGCPS and Suitland High working collectively to avoid a withdrawal, with no success. “The school did not want to me to leave and the guidance consular did everything to make me comfortable with attending class every day. Nothing worked. I just wanted the county to let me go to the school of my choice.” With PGCPS denying her transfer request and her refusal to comply with the attendance policy, she was dropped from the roster once turning 16. “I didn’t care at first but a year later, it was a decision that I regretted.”

Fortunately, she was able to locate a GED program, at the time operated by PGCPS, for withdrawn high school students seeking to earn a Maryland High Diploma. Remarkably, she was able to complete the Intensive GED preparation program and successfully passed the GED test, earning her diploma the same year she would’ve graduated from Suitland. “I was shocked at my will power the most. I was able to break this horrible cycle within my family.” She goes on to explain that she’d never considered college before that point. “Before the Intensive GED program, College wasn’t even being thought of. I knew I couldn’t afford it.” But a conversation with the program’s administrator changed things she vividly remembers “My mentor at the time, the administrator, pretty much told me that I will be going to college, not really giving me a choice” she laughs. “Ok I said.”

After completing two years of an AmeriCorps program, she promptly began taking courses at Prince George’s Community College and received her associate’s in 2013. “Again, once finishing at PGCC, I thought that I would be done but that was not the case.” Realizing she would ultimately need to obtain a bachelor’s (at minimum), she began searching for a university to transfer to. “Attending a HBCU was important to me, but so was remaining debt free and being practical” she explains “While Bowie State was not my first choice, it was hard to avoid that most of my needs would be met by selecting a school in state. Here I am now, about to receive my bachelor’s and completely debt free.”

Green maintains that remaining humble is the key to being successful. “Be grateful because you never know when your blessing can be at risk.”  Her journey has not been without a few bumps, with her explaining that at one point needing to take a semester off to assist with mounting bills. She then goes on to share that just before the final exam period of the fall 2015 semester, the landlord of the house where her and her family had lived for the past seven years finally issued a 30 day notice. “My mother was struggling with the bills for the past 3 years, and I am shocked that it didn’t happen much sooner. I thought that I would be homeless and would have to quit school the very semester I was slated to be finished.” However, with the guidance of a professor and resources on campus, she was able to arrange a temporary housing situation that would allow her to complete her studies without further delay. “All I can say is that God is truly amazing. It’s been a long journey but well worth it.”


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