In Voronezh, Rights in Russia recently had the opportunity to ask Galina Arapova, chair of the Media Rights Defence Centre (which this last November celebrated the 15th anniversary of its founding) about a new legal database her Centre has set up.
Rights in Russia: Could you tell us about the new database?
Galina Arapova: Yes of course. We have created a special Database on Russian Judicial Practice in Media Law. The database is for everything related to freedom of expression, access to information. We have identified all the categories of cases and claims, civil and criminal, that can be brought against journalists, editors and other media workers. On this basis we have sought to gather together judicial judgments from the widest range of Russian regions with the help of colleagues, media lawyers, editors. We have also asked judges, and some judges have given us a full list of rulings that they have made, providing us with judgements from their archives. For example, we have been very grateful to the chair of Lipetsk regional court. We sent them a request for information and the chair of Lipetsk court instructed his staff to provide us with all the media law cases – there were 180 cases – from the last ten years. It’s a huge amount of work that the staff of the court did to give us all their judicial practice for our database. Not every chair of a regional court will go to such lengths to give information to an open, non-governmental, database.
The database includes information about civil and criminal cases, court judgments. It also includes the information about the media publications that lay behind the cases - publications in newspapers, TV broadcasts, cartoons. Everything has been gathered in one place and made maximally accessible to potential users. So you can make a search for a case, for categories of cases. You can use keywords, for example by the name of the person who brought a suit (there are people - usually officials - for example who often take the press to court) to find what court cases there have been, what has been their outcome. All the court cases are presented in a common format. For each there is a summary of the case prepared by our Centre where you can read what the case was about, its particular significance, and how it ended. There is information about whether the ruling has entered into force, if there was an appeal, what lawyers represented the defendant and the applicant, what article of the law was involved. You can also conduct a search for any article of the law. For example, Article 131 of the Criminal Code – insult. So if a lawyer has never had a case like that before, a quick search will bring up all the cases under this article. So the database has a very powerful search tool built into it.
Rights in Russia: When did the database go on line?
Galina Arapova: We started work on the database in 2007. The database went online in 2011. But when we first opened access to the database we did not immediately have time to publicize it properly. Then we had an intern from the faculty of journalism of Voronezh State University, specializing in public relations, and we asked her to do some work publicizing the database. She did a lot of work contacting the target audience - judges, lawyers, law faculty, students, journalists, editors, and so forth. She made a press release at the beginning of October that we sent out to universities, law firms and newspapers all over Russia. Since that time the site has rapidly increased the number of visits. Nowadays there are about 100-130 visitors to the database each day. I think this is not bad for such a specialized resource, and one that has only just gone on line.
For us the most important thing is that lawyers who want to develop professionally at last have the chance to work with real legal practice. This is so important because what none of us have had enough of in the past is access to court decisions on cases of this kind.
Rights in Russia: Is there an official database of this kind?
Galina Arapova: Yes, it is called Pravosudiya (the full name is “State Automated System ‘Justice’ of the Russian Federation”). It was also launched relatively recently, and access is free of charge. At the moment the government announced its intention to create an official database on court decisions I must say we were somewhat concerned! You see we were working on our own database and we thought, why are we doing all this if the official database will have everything in it?
But once we saw what the official database was like we understood that it does not contain all court judgments. In fact, they do not know how to put information on the site in the most effective way. For example, we are now providing training for court officials on how to add information to the official website Justice without violating the right to privacy. Because there are many nuances that court personnel do not know about and they are overloaded with work. The government did not hire additional staff to work on the database. So court officials, judges, the chairs of the courts, in addition to their main work, are involved in taking decisions about which ruling to put on the database, and which ruling to omit. There is no obligation in law to put every case on the database. And there are certain clear limitations. Cases that are not being put on the database are those concerning family law, divorce, for example, custody of children, adoption, cases on privacy, and criminal cases such as rape. But a lot of other cases are also not on the database. We noticed that our cases – those involving media law - although they do not deal with private matters are also not on the database. We believe this is because they often touch on the interests of influential people, since it is often these people who sue the press. I mean regional governors, officials, business people, and celebrities. It could be that that it is almost impossible to find information about the kinds of cases with which we deal on the official database because these people do not wish to attract unwanted additional attention. Rulings on these cases are now in our database, but when we searched for them on the official database we could not find them anywhere – and that includes decisions that we knew about because we ourselves had taken part in them! They are not in the database. So we see that despite the fact that there is now an official government database for court judgments on the Internet, apparently intended to make judgments accessible, the areas of media law and freedom of speech are not really represented at all.
There is another problem with the Pravosudiya database, and it is not in fact a single unified database. The fact is that every court has its own site and they put their own judgments on their own site. So to look for a case in Krasnoyarsk you need to go to the website of the Krasnoyarsk courts and look there. You cannot just go to one site and look for example for judgments on the law of advertising for the whole country. You need to visit 83 different sites.
Rights in Russia: Are there any other databases apart from Pravosudiya?
Galina Arapova: There is also a database run by the Supreme Commercial Court. The great majority of media law cases are heard in the courts of general jurisdiction, but some cases are heard in the commercial courts. Commercial courts have a single database which can be found at the site of the Supreme Commercial Court, and the commercial courts of all the 83 regions of the Russian Federation send records of their cases to this single database.
Another problem with the official databases is that to find a case you need to know its official name or to know the number of the case. Speaking for myself, I find it practically impossible to find a case I want in the official system. In our database everything is much easier. You don’t need to know the case number. You can do a search using any word, you can make a search based on the names of the people involved, or by the name of the media outlet. A mass of other options are available to make a search. The database is divided into categories . All defamation cases are grouped together in one section. For example, cases involving legislation on extremism, or advertising law. The database is very easy to search and find what you are looking for. In the Pravosudiya database you need to know the name and number of the case to be able to find it. And like I say, while the commercial court database has the advantage of being at least one website, with the courts of general jurisdiction you have to look individually at the website of each of Russia’s 83 regions, you cannot simply do a search for the whole country.
Rights in Russia: Are there similar databases on media law in other countries?
Galina Arapova: There are no similar sites in other countries. As we discovered, this partly explained the interest of the Soros Foundation in funding the project to develop this website. We were well-equipped to develop this database because we have experience of a very wide legal practice, dealing with about 100 cases each year, which has no parallel in many other countries. I see this for myself, for example, when I conduct training for media lawyers in Mongolia, Macedonia, Albania, and Moldavia. You can see that in other regions of the world there are lawyers who deal with similar cases, but not on the same scale as our Centre. Our purpose was of course to develop a database on Russian legal practice, but what we have also done is to develop a database based on our practice that can be used as a model for imitation in other countries. And when we developed our database we specifically adopted a universal model that could be used in other countries where the legal framework is approximately like that of the Russian Federation, i.e. where there is a system of continental law. And this after all is most countries in the world, with the exception of countries that have common law systems such as the UK, the US, and Australia, for example. Incidentally, our database is now going to be used as a model by one of the human rights organizations in South Africa. This is not connected in particular with media rights or freedom of expression. But the model we have developed can in fact be used to create a legal database on any issue.
Rights in Russia: We wish you every success. And of course we recommend that our readers visit your new database. Thank you.
Source: Human Rights in Russia