Former Russian media owner launches Brussels-based initiative to "protect press freedom"

A media proprietor has announced plans to set up a foundation in Brussels to help promote “independent journalism.”

Oleg Strekalov is the founder of an independent media group, Chekhov VID, which once covered political misbehaviour and corruption in a suburban Moscow community.

He told this website he has now established a press freedom organization with a view to helping people like himself defend themselves against state intervention elsewhere.

Strekalov, 51, says he will be registering the “Media Justice Foundation” and basing it in Brussels because “from what I can see, the EU is now the world’s standard bearer for the rule of law and support for press freedom.”

His once-thriving media group -- an internet portal, a newspaper and a TV studio -- has seen its staff slashed from over 50 to just 14, and its investigative “culture” has been duly curbed.

Moreover, the Ukraine-born Strekalov,who is now based in Germany, has had to relinquish ownership as Russian law bans foreign-based owners.

But he has decided to fight back, both to help others in Russia – and elsewhere – facing similar pressures but also to help independent media owners and journalists around the world.

These are difficult times for independent media, on the one hand, the internet has greatly complicated the finances of the conventional media..... on the other hand, we have despots and autocrats around the world taking aim at media critics. Independent journalism is under severe threat.

Oleg Strekalov

Strekalov wants his Foundation to mobilize public support for journalists under threat and plans to raise funds to hire lawyers wherever they may be needed.

“People seem to have forgotten the value of a free and independent media,” he says. “I’m going to remind them.”

Back in Russia he is faced with a potential 20-year prison sentence evidently merely for harboring pro-Ukrainian views.

Placed on Russia’s wanted list late in 2017, Strekalov is regarded by his home country as a fugitive. A 125-page indictment filed in a Russian court accuses him of organizing a criminal gang and money laundering. “There was never any gang. I’ve never even heard of most of the people the prosecutors claim I recruited into it.”

In reality, Strekalov says his media holding in the town of Chekhov, south of Moscow, offended a number of important people, including local officers of the state Investigative Committee, the powerful law enforcement agency currently pursuing his prosecution. Senior staff in the agency’s Chekhov office lost their jobs following exposés in his newspaper.

But it appears to have been Strekalov’s views on Ukraine that captured the most serious attention.

Born in Khmilnyk, Ukraine, Strekalov has relatives there and maintains dual Russian and Ukrainian citizenship. Early in 2014, with mass demonstrations in full flight in the Ukrainian capital, Strekalov visited to help celebrate his grandfather’s 95th birthday.  Returning home, he wrote that Ukrainians were protesting against state corruption, not against Russia. Unfortunately, one of the people with whom he shared this “unpatriotic” opinion was the local police chief, who was secretly recording the conversation.

Shortly afterwards he was interviewed by the FSB, successor to the KGB. He promptly moved to Germany and remains officially a German resident. Lawyers there expect an extradition request imminently.

“According to the indictment, Russian prosecutors allege that my client was the co-founder and co-head of a criminal organisation formed to commit several criminal acts in the period from 1 October 2011 until August 2016,” observes Hamburg attorney Dr. Volker Rosengarten.

“There, however, is nothing in this document that corroborates these allegations and identifies my client as a direct participant in any of the actions alleged. It merely says he 'organised', 'directed' and ‘met’ with others on undisclosed dates without providing any details in this respect. Apart from these unsubstantiated allegations, the indictment nowhere does say that he actually 'did' anything personally and also does not specify that my client gained any personal benefits from the alleged criminal acts.”

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Martin Banks

Martin Banks

Martin Banks is a highly qualified journalist with many years experience of working within the EU institutions. He is an occasional, and highly valued, contributor to EU today, writing on a wide variety of issues.

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