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Russian media boycott parliament over sex scandal

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By Agence France-Presse

Top Russian media outlets launched a rare boycott of parliament on Thursday after it dismissed claims from a number of journalists that a senior lawmaker had sexually harassed them.

A woman holds a placard reading "Hands off female journalists" outside Russia's parliament building. (AFP/File / Vasily Maximov/ MANILA BULLETIN)

A woman holds a placard reading “Hands off female journalists” outside Russia’s parliament building. (AFP/File / Vasily Maximov/ MANILA BULLETIN)

Influential media including popular radio station Echo of Moscow, RBC media group and Dozhd (Rain) independent television said they would no longer send journalists to cover the lower house of parliament, the State Duma.

The joint action comes after several reporters for Western and Russian independent media accused Leonid Slutsky, head of the State Duma’s foreign affairs committee, of making lewd sexual comments and groping.

But on Wednesday, the parliamentary ethics commission said it had found no violations in the behaviour of the 50-year-old lawmaker from the nationalist Liberal Democratic Party.

The commission questioned the motives of BBC Russian Service journalist Farida Rustamova, deputy editor at the US-based RTVi Yekaterina Kotrikadze and Dozhd producer Darya Zhuk, saying their claims had appeared in the run-up to last Sunday’s presidential election.

The journalists broke their silence on a subject that is still largely taboo in Russia as the “#MeToo” movement has swept across the globe.

And the boycott is a rare campaign of solidarity in a country where all major television channels are state-controlled.

– ‘Dangerous to work in parliament’ –

“Echo of Moscow now considers the State Duma an unsafe workplace for journalists of both sexes,” its chief editor Alexei Venediktov wrote.

The Vedomosti business daily said it would boycott Slutsky and the ethics commission’s members.

Journalists have the constitutional right to safety and dignity, it wrote.

“The State Duma should adopt all measures including legislative ones so that such things does not happen within its wall or outside them.”

Dozhd quoted its chief editor Alexandra Perepolova as saying “it has become clear that it’s simply dangerous for women to work in the State Duma”.

Some media organisations such as Kommersant business daily did not pull their parliamentary correspondents but said they would no longer be asking Slutsky for comments.

The Kremlin-friendly online news portal Lenta said it would ignore Slutsky’s existence and would delete all its articles about him except those covering the sexual harassment claims.

– ‘Enemy media’ –

According to an audio recording of Wednesday’s closed-door hearing of the ethics committee that was leaked to the press, a lawmaker with the ruling United Russia party, Shamsail Saraliyev, called the women “enemy media”.

“All the journalists who raised this subject today are journalists of Western media, I call them enemy media,” he was quoted as saying.

President Vladimir Putin’s spokesman Dmitry Peskov declined to comment on the boycott and the decision of the ethics commission.

“This is not the issue for the presidential administration,” he told reporters.

When pressed to say whether Putin was aware of the scandal, he said: “I think I’ve said everything on this subject.”

Rustamova, one of the two female journalists who gave testimony at Wednesday’s closed-door meeting, thanked the media for their campaign.

“I am grateful to colleagues for their solidarity and support,” she told AFP.

“I think that in any case this is some sort of dialogue,” she added, referring to the boycott.

– ‘Return to the norm’ –

Opposition activists supported the boycott.

“This is a return to the norm which we are so lacking,” former lawmaker and opposition politician Dmitry Gudkov wrote on Facebook, lamenting that national TV channels and Russian news agencies “were keeping silent”.

“This is a very important (I’d even say dramatic) story concerning Slutsky,” top opposition leader Alexei Navalny wrote on Twitter.

Slutsky was largely supported by his colleagues, including Liberal Democratic Party leader Vladimir Zhirinovsky, who accused the journalists of “receiving orders from the West”.

In 2014, Zhirinovsky, who often makes highly offensive and misogynist statements, told his bodyguard to “rape in a rough manner” a pregnant reporter in comments broadcast on national television.

In Russia’s macho culture, claims of harassment are rare.

There is no law defining sexual harassment and even rape cases often do not make it to trial, while the punishmnent for domestic violence has recently been reduced.

Putin, who prides himself on his alpha-male image, was quoted by Kommersant in 2006 as praising the sexual stamina of then Israeli president Moshe Katsav after he was accused of multiple rapes.

“What a powerful guy he turned out to be! Raped 10 women! We all envy him!” Putin said.

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