Head of Russian news website faces prison

Will Englund/WASHINGTON POST - Aksana Panova, 39, in her office at a start-up news website called znak.com, is fighting criminal charges that were brought against her when she offended the authorities. Her trial is expected to start this month.

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YEKATERINBURG, Russia — There was a time when a wily and adept journalist had room to maneuver in this Russian city, between the competing camps of the mayor and the governor. Aksana Panova took full advantage of that, and her news Web site, called ura.ru, made a name for itself as splashy and outspoken.

But now she is being crushed.

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A governor appointed last year by newly elected President Vladi­mir Putin quickly brought the mayor to heel with criminal investigations.

Then the authorities went after Panova, 39, who lost her Web site and faces four criminal charges that could land her in prison for 15 years. But the lively and quick-
witted
journalist, who has a 9-year-old son, is determined not to give in.

“What’s happening to Aksana is a crime,” said Konstantin Kiselyev, a veteran political analyst here.

The charges against her, including theft and extortion, showcase the changes that have crept over Russia in the past year. Heavy-handed criminal prosecution, reliant on brazenly dubious evidence, has become a primary means of political management.

In Kirov, the whistleblower Alexei Navalny is on trial, accused of corruption. In Moscow, a dozen defendants face serious prison terms after being attacked by police at a demonstration last year. A leading liberal economist, Sergei Guriev, fled to Paris last month after criminal investigators began questioning him, apparently prompted by his public skepticism over the guilt of the imprisoned oil magnate Mikhail Khodorkovsky.

This crackdown began with Putin’s return to the presidency. The trend has since reached all the way down to a news Web site here in Yekaterinburg, Russia’s fourth-largest city. In Moscow, a few modest examples of an independent press persevere, but, as Panova has discovered, there’s little hope of protection for a journalist in the provinces who has caused offense.

Rallying to Panova’s cause

Opposition politicians and cultural figures from Moscow and St. Petersburg are rallying to her cause, including a former deputy prime minister, Boris Nemtsov, and a venerable pop star, Alla Pugacheva. Through blog posts and visits to Moscow, Panova’s supporters portray her case not as a provincial tale but as a national story.

“I think it is quite obvious that the authorities are exercising political pressure, and here we see the political pressure on journalists,” Alexei Venediktov, head of the Ekho Moskvy radio station, said on air during a visit here. He said that ura.ru, with a staff of 30, had been the most reliable news outlet in the Ural region and that not only Panova but also the public was harmed by the attack against it.

What alarms Kiselyev and others is that the region’s police, security agency, prosecutor’s staff and investigative committee have put aside their usual bitter rivalries and joined in an alliance under the governor, Yevgeny Kuyvashev. Kiselyev calls it “the junta” and worries about its implications for the rest of Russia.

A critic of the government, Yevgeny Roizman, said a decade of “negative selection” among Russian authorities has left only the most loyal and least imaginative in office. Roizman is a controversial, intensely popular — and, therefore, targeted — figure, as well as a critic of the government’s drug policy. He runs an anti-narcotics foundation here that is also under pressure from law enforcement agencies — and he and Panova are close friends.

‘We cannot coexist’

Ura.ru — the name evokes both the Urals and the Russian word for “hurrah” — was a free-speaking voice heard throughout the nation’s midsection. When it launched a campaign that had street artists painting politicians’ faces around gaping potholes, it became a national hit.

Panova developed a working relationship with Kuyvashev when the future governor was the Kremlin’s envoy to the region, and she offered him public relations advice. Favors like that got returns, said Alexander Zadorozhny, a former ura.ru journalist. “We were the best-informed agency in the Urals,” he said.

But Panova had critics in high places. In 2011, she said, two businessmen, Artyom Bykov and Alexei Bobrov, told her that they had been ordered to buy her out. She refused. Electricity failures and computer hacks ensued. A Kremlin operative called and urged her to rethink her decision, she said. She talked it over with her staff members, and they agreed to sell 51 percent of the company.

The new owners — Bobrov said he and Bykov obtained Austrian citizenship when they realized how attractive Austria’s bank secrecy laws are — left them alone at first.

Then Kuyvashev became governor in May 2012, replacing an incumbent who had been appointed by former president Dmitry Medvedev and was embroiled in a fight with the city’s mayor for commercial dominance. (Each side controlled key local companies.) Kuyvashev asserted his power and squeezed the mayor out. Then his “junta” turned on Roizman. Despite pressure from the new owners, Panova broke with Kuyvashev and leaped to Roizman’s defense.

In the fall, after police detained the company’s accountant for four days, all but one ura.ru employee quit. Led by Panova, who said Bykov and Bobrov forced her out, they set up a competing Web site, znak.com, but she became distracted by the charges that were brought against her.

Under stress and pregnant, she gave birth in December, but the baby girl was stillborn. Panova said investigators went to the morgue to photograph the body, to prove to their bosses that she was dead.

“This whole story is about Russia today,” she said. “Who do we have in power now? Those who could take pictures of dead babies. We are talking about two different planets. We cannot coexist.”

Her trial starts soon. She is sure to be found guilty; acquittals are vanishingly rare in Russian courtrooms.

 
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