Russian ministry stamps nature secret

Publish date: March 4, 2003

Written by: Rashid Alimov

A telegram sent to local offices of Russian Ministry for Natural Resources to classify enviro-information is repudiated because of public protest.

On February 19th, the Ministry for Natural Resources of Russia (MNR) sent a telegram to its local branches. The telegram in effect classifies environmental information.

The Orwellian telegram reads, “to use information about the environment effectively, all the data, containing negative and catastrophic forecasts for natural and industrial processes should be considered classified.”

The telegram stipulates that such information should not be disclosed to media and public activists. Even federal executive bodies and the government can receive this information from local MNR branches, only with permission from a special department in MNR.

The telegram was signed by MNR’s deputy minister, Alexander Povolotsky. Povolotsky had been appointed responsible for creating information databases in MNR of late. The appointment was signed by Vitaly Artyukhov, head of MNR, on February 2nd. One of the main goals of the information databases, the appointment letter says, is to assure access to environmental information for local governments, organizations and citizens.

An attempt to conceal information

Povolotsky seems to have a strange attitude to his role in assuring access to enviro-information. According to his instructions, even federal governmental bodies are limited in their access to the information. Even the Russian Ministry for Emergency Situations, EMERCOM, which deals with catastrophes as an emergency response team, would have to ask the special MNR department each time they need information from local MNR branches.

The EMERCOM press service told Bellona Web that they often ask for data at local MNR bodies. EMERCOM is currently trying to get details of wholesale deaths of fish in Tver county, for example.

At present, EMERCOM regularly publishes long-term forecasts for possible catastrophes and cataclysms, without classifying them. They acknowledge the majority of Russian industries are out-dated, and so catastrophes are quite possible in 2003. The head of the department for Emergency Prevention and Response, Vladimir Novikov, says the most dangerous are nuclear and oil producing industries.

The Prosecutor General to get involved

The right to access enviro-information is granted by the Russian Constitution (art. 24, 29, 42) and the Environment Protection Law. In a meeting with governors January, President Putin claimed that “secrecy and redtapism” hamper solving environmental problems, particularly securing radioactive waste.

Activists of non-governmental organizations learned about the telegram a week after it was sent, because of a leak of information from an MNR office. Environmentalists composed and signed a letter to the Prosecutor General of the Russian Federation Vladimir Ustinov, saying deputy minister Povolotsky committed crimes such as malfeasance (Criminal Code, art 286) and the concealment of environmental information (Administrative Code). Environmentalists say he exceeded his authority, trying to conceal information, which may be important for people’s life and health.

Povolotsky refuses to comment on the incident and the public accusations.

The telegram renounced

President of one of the NGOs who signed the letter to the Prosecutor General, the Centre for Russian Environmental Policy, Alexey Yablokov, told Bellona Web that the Ministry for Natural Resources has repudiated the telegram from February 19th. In the new version, the instructions do not make information about environmental catastrophes classified, but still the document says such information may be given only with permission from the special department in MNR.

“Anyway, the Prosecutor General of Russian the Federation, Vladimir Ustinov, will have to check the legality of their instructions. The most important for me is the fact, that this telegram has been renounced,” — Alexey Yablokov says.

Legal consultants of ECR Bellona say that Povolotsky’s telegram could not make information classified, because the telegram was not purposed to be officially published. The Russian Constitution stipulates that legal documents pertaining to human rights are valid only if published officially for public access.

“Soviet practice to classify information by a telegram contradicts Russian laws, and that’s why the Prosecutor’s office should be in earnest about this incident,” — lawyers of ERC Bellona say.