By Peter Finn
Washington Post Foreign Service
Wednesday, November 14, 2007
MOSCOW, Nov. 13 -- The newspaper Novaya Gazeta, one of the last outposts of critical journalism in Russia, suspended publication of its regional edition in the southern city of Samara on Monday after prosecutors opened a criminal case against its editor, alleging that his publication used unlicensed software.
The case is part of a larger assault on independent news media, advocacy organizations and political activists, according to government critics. But it is one that is specifically tailored to deflect foreign criticism.
In multiple police raids against such groups, authorities are ostensibly targeting the alleged use of counterfeit software. Western governments and companies have long urged action against the widespread piracy in Russia.
"Our law enforcement finally realized that computers are very important tools for their opponents, and they have decided to take away these tools by doing something close to the West's agenda," said Vladimir Pribylovsky, head of the Panorama research institute in Moscow. "I suppose you could say it's very clever."
In the past 10 months, police in at least five Russian cities have raided the offices of media outlets, political parties and private advocacy groups and seized computers allegedly containing illegal software, paralyzing the work of the organizations. Often, authorities demand that employees submit to questioning and order them not to leave town until legal action is completed.
According to some estimates, the piracy rate for all kinds of intellectual property in Russia is as high as 80 percent. The International Intellectual Property Alliance, a U.S. coalition of rights holders, estimates that its members suffered piracy losses of $2 billion in Russia in 2006, according to a letter the coalition recently sent to the Office of the U.S. Trade Representative. The organization said that progress in enforcing intellectual property rights in Russia has been "insufficient."
Most of the Russian groups targeted by the authorities deny buying counterfeit software or say they used it only unwittingly. They charge that with authorities doing little to challenge the rampant piracy in Russia, including illicit production of disks in defense facilities and other agencies, the raids on their own offices amount to selective enforcement of the law.
"This is not a campaign against piracy, it's a campaign against dissent," said Vitaly Yaroshevsky, a deputy editor of Novaya Gazeta in Moscow, who is in charge of the newspaper's regional editions. "The authorities want to destroy an opposition newspaper. It doesn't matter if we send more computers to Samara. It doesn't matter if we show we bought computers legally. It will change nothing." The paper says it believes its software is legal.
Russian officials declined to comment on the piracy cases Tuesday, but police and prosecutors had previously told Russian news media that the raids are simply part of a broader crackdown on illegal software and other forms of piracy.
Police have raided businesses that play no political role, but without the sustained effort directed toward groups that are critical of the Kremlin.
"It's cynical, but it's also very difficult for us to say anything," said one Western observer, who spoke on condition of anonymity because he was not authorized to comment publicly on the subject.
Most of those accused of using unlicensed software appear to have some connection, sometimes quite tentative, to the opposition coalition called Other Russia, which is led by Garry Kasparov, the chess grandmaster and fierce critic of President Vladimir Putin.
Police in Samara, for instance, first raided Golos, a private group that monitors elections, in May, just before Kasparov's organization held what it called the March of Dissent to coincide with a Russian-European Union summit in the city. Ludmila Kuzmina, the head of Golos, said police showed up in her office 90 minutes after she made a statement on the Echo Moskvy radio station saying that she supported the march.
Police seized the group's computers and opened an investigation into the alleged use of unlicensed software. Kuzmina had to sign documents agreeing not to leave the city until the investigation, which is still continuing, is completed.
"The quality of our work is suffering," Kuzmina said. "I am under pressure all the time. They call me for interrogations. All I do is deal with the police."
Also in May, police in the city of Tula seized a computer at the offices of one of Kasparov's coalition partners at the time, former prime minister Mikhail Kasyanov. Private groups and a Novaya Gazeta office in the central Russian city of Nizhny Novgorod were also raided and accused of using illegal software before a March of Dissent in that city in August.
Advocacy groups have been accused of the offense in the cities of Volgograd and Syktyvkar, according to Pavel Chikov, head of Agora, a coalition of Russian private groups. "They have suddenly decided it's a great tactic," Chikov said. "They can stop all the activities of a group at a key moment, before a march or during the election period."
Last month, police in Samara raided another news media organization, the Internet outlet 63.ru, which had a reputation for reporting that was critical of the government. Five desktop and two notebook computers were taken for "expert evaluation," 63.ru said.
The offices of the Samara Novaya Gazeta, a weekly, were first raided by Interior Ministry investigators before Kasparov's rally in May. Police seized financial documents, as well as computers. The paper was one of the few media outlets that had planned to cover the march, according to its editor in chief in Samara, Sergey Kurt-Adzhiyev. Moreover, the editor said, his daughter, Anastasia, 21, was one of the local organizers of the march.
The paper had continued to publish since May but Kurt-Adzhiyev said that in the past two months, investigators also began pressuring its distributors and advertisers. Last Thursday, police seized the last of the newspaper's computers in Samara.
"They visited all organizations and companies with which I work and told them to terminate all cooperation," said Kurt-Adzhiyev, 50, who is now barred from leaving Samara. "They told them if they didn't agree, they would have problems. I even lost my own personal computer. It became impossible for us to go on."
Kurt-Adzhiyev said the paper would now attempt to sell its Moscow edition in Samara, but he said he worried that local newsstands would be reluctant to carry it.
Meanwhile, according to Tatyana Lokshina, head of Demos, a Moscow-based human rights group, activist groups across the country are hastily checking the legality of their software. "Most people are trying to put things in order," she said.