License to Pre-Emptively Censor?

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License to Pre-Emptively Censor?

"A few days ago I ran into a good friend who works as a journalist. When she caught my eye she looked around furtively, then moved in close and whispered: "What I'm about to do is completely illegal. If anyone finds out about it, we could both face severe punishment." With that, she pulled a glossy magazine called from her handbag and passed it to me. On the cover was a photograph of oil magnate Mikhail Khodorkovsky and the headline: "Who is mister X?" This was the same issue that lies at the heart of a lawsuit brought against the magazine by five Yukos executives, including Khodorkovsky and his former first deputy, Leonid Nevzlin.

I won't bore you with all the details of the case. If you're interested, you'll find everything you need on the Internet at The Yukos executives have charged the magazine with defamation in the issue devoted to the company's history and current operations. When the suit was filed, the plaintiffs requested that the magazine's entire print run -- 10,000 copies -- be impounded and that "third parties" be prohibited from distributing the issue. The court granted their request before it had even considered the merits of the case. If that's not pre-emptive censorship, or prior restraint to use the legal term, then I don't know what is.
The court's decision was unprecedented. Even the "sinister" government of Vladimir Putin never pre-empted the judicial process this blatantly. Back in 2000 and 2001, when the government was trying to strangle the old NTV, it never jumped the gun by stepping in to silence the constant criticism of the regime broadcast by Yevgeny Kiselyov and his colleagues before the courts had ruled.
To cut a long story short, my friend and I flouted the court order, she by "distributing" the magazine to me, and I by accepting it. We joked that now pensioners and proletarians weren't the only ones who regarded the communist past with nostalgia. We in the liberal intelligentsia clearly miss the emotional rush and the sense of risk that we experienced back then as we circulated "anti-Soviet" literature in samizdat copies.
As a rule, I don't read publications like You never really know who bankrolls them or why, and their reporting doesn't exactly inspire confidence. When I sat down with the forbidden issue, I couldn't even make myself read it to the end. Does anyone really doubt that the startup capital that launched Yukos -- and all the other oligarchs' empires -- was the result of some shady deals? As a reader, trying to separate fact from fiction in Kompromat's articles is just a waste a time.
But I detest prior restraint even more than I detest publications like Kompromat. The lawsuit against the magazine led me to some alarming realizations. Khodorkovsky and Nevzlin are obviously no dummies. Whatever they may have done when they were getting started back in the 1990s, today Yukos is considered a model corporate citizen. Khodorkovsky has made strides toward transparency, and he has bolstered Yukos' reputation around the world. Both Khodorkovsky and Nevzlin are active in philanthropic work, and both fund programs that support a free and independent press.
Given all that, you'd think they would see that by overreacting in the case against Kompromat, they could incur the wrath of the entire journalistic community. All the more so because the magazine's offices are located at 4 Zubovsky Bulvar, also home to the Union of Journalists and other human rights organizations known for sounding the alarm about suppression of free speech in the most distant corners of the country. Once that starts, an international incident can't be far behind.
You get the impression that Khodorkovsky and Nevzlin have decided that by supporting a free press, they have bought themselves an indulgence entitling them to censor publications at will. Judging by the lack of public outcry over the Kompromat case, they just might be right.
Alexei Pankin is the editor of Sreda, a magazine for media professionals ( "


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