Cancelled Screening of Controversial Film in European Parliament Reveals Depth of Western Groupthink on Russia

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Danielle Ryan

Journalist

When a renowned filmmaker claims to possess evidence of massive deception on the part of an internationally known businessman, you’d think that might generate some interest. In the European Parliament, however, it just gets the screening of your film cancelled. That’s what happens, at least, if the businessman in question is untouchable anti-Putin hero Bill Browder.

Russian filmmaker and Putin critic Andrey Nekrasov found out the hard way just how much of a one-way street freedom of speech is in Europe these days when a screening of his film at the European Parliament was cancelled at the last minute on April 27.

The Browder Story

First, some backstory. Browder is a British businessman who made his fortune during the early years of Vladimir Putin’s rule in Russia. He later accused Russian officials of stealing $230 million from taxpayers and murdering the lawyer who reported the crime, Sergei Magnitsky, in prison. Ultimately, Browder’s evidence prompted the US to blacklist Russian officials and resulted in sanctions being placed on Russia over the case.

Browder’s long-standing international campaign to hold Russia accountable for Magnitsky’s death is a story that has been told and re-told many times in the pages of European and American newspapers. Browder became somewhat of an anti-Putin darling of the Western media who were eager to promote his story.

But Nekrasov’s film paints a strikingly different picture of the entire affair. In it, he claims that Browder fraudulently convinced both the EU and US of his allegations in order to avoid extradition to Russia, where a Moscow district court had convicted him of tax fraud in absentia and sentenced him to 10 years in prison. In other words, the film claims the whole story was a massive con that the West fell for — hook, line and sinker.

Last-minute cancellation

Nekrasov told the EU Observer in Brussels that “the whole world was fooled” by Browder and that his story just “doesn’t add up”. What’s more, he said that he, like the Western press, had believed that Magnitsky was a “hero” until he uncovered evidence that change his mind. Ironically, he had originally intended his film to be about Magnitsky as a defender of human rights.

But whatever the truth, MEPs were denied the right to make up their own minds. Under pressure from lawyers for Browder and Magnitsky’s family, who called the film “degrading”, the screening was abruptly cancelled.

Another showing of the film, which was due to air on Franco-German network ARTE on May 3, was also postponed. A spokeswoman for the channel said the film was being reviewed to make sure it is “clean” and that it might air “in a few weeks”. The channel has removed the promotional video for the film from its website.

Stunningly, Browder has been quick to label Nekrasov “pro-Kremlin” — something which he, demonstrably, is not. In fact, Nekrasov’s claims should have been given weight by the fact that he is no propagandist. He is certainly no fan of the Kremlin, having made previous films about the wars in Chechnya and another suggesting that the Kremlin was behind the murder of former FSB officer Alexander Litvinenko. But conspiracy theorists and those who practice anti-Putinism as a profession of sorts, would prefer to believe that rather than uncovering new evidence, Nekrasov must have somehow been turned by the Kremlin and is now peddling propaganda for Putin.

Europe or North Korea?

Understandably, Nekrasov is not happy. “Mr. Browder’s lawyers are so powerful that they can halt the screening, which I find to be scandalous,” he said. “What about freedom of speech? What is this, North Korea?”

The fact that all it took was a scare from Browder’s lawyers to have the viewing cancelled proves that “the right to freedom of speech here is only provided to one side,” according to Russian lawyer Natalia Veselnitskaya, who was an organizer of the screening.

But frankly, Nekrasov may have been naive in thinking that this particular film would see much acclaim. His allegations about Browder and Magnitsky have fallen on deaf ears in Western newsrooms. They have received minimal coverage, with the story appearing in only a handful of online publications. This is telling, given the interest and enthusiasm with which Western journalists covered Browder’s version of events.

The controversy surrounding Nekrasov’s film provides a perfect example of the pervasive groupthink that permeates Western institutions regarding anything to do with Russia. If it paints Russia or Putin in a negative light, print it, broadcast it, beam it into the sky, do whatever you want with it. If it exonerates Putin or Russia in any way, on any issue, bin it.

The bottom line is: There is nothing Nekrasov’s film could have accused Putin of that would have resulted in the cancellation of the screening. No claim against a Russian official could be too outlandish, no allegation too ridiculous. But if it doesn’t fit the narrative, too bad, it will be pushed under the carpet.

This is an incredibly harmful way of operating. If, even faced with a compelling theory presented by a staunch Putin critic, we are still unwilling to cast aside our assumptions and listen, then what hope has Europe got at rebuilding its relationship with Russia? It is a dangerous assumption and a slippery slope to assume that anything which challenges our preconceived notions is “propaganda” and nothing more. Whether Nekrasov’s claims are right, wrong, or somewhere in between, no one should be able to stop them from being aired with such ease as Browder did.

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