CPJ protests harassment of weekly newspaper in Perm

August 25, 2006

Mr. Aleksandr Kondalov
Perm Regional Prosecutor
Lunacharskogo Street 60
Perm 614990

Via Facsimile: 011 7 (342) 212-80-47

Dear Prosecutor Kondalov:

The Committee to Protect Journalists is alarmed by the harassment by the authorities in the city of Perm of the independent weekly Permsky Obozrevatel.

All eight members of the newspaper’s staff are under criminal investigation and are considered witnesses in three criminal cases, according to editor Tatyana Sokolova, and local press reports.

Your office has opened criminal investigations into the weekly under Articles 130, 137, and 283 of Russia’s criminal code, respectively for “insult,” “violating the right to private life,” and “disclosing state secrets.” None of the journalists has been charged but they have been questioned by investigators, Sokolova told CPJ.

The three criminal investigations are part of a pattern of harassment of the paper. Permsky Obozrevatel is the only independent newspaper in Perm. It criticizes the local administration and often publishes analytical articles on official corruption and economic issues, such as privatization and the redistribution of municipal property.

Today, Igor Grinberg, Permsky Obozrevatel‘s founder, was told by his sources that the Perm Regional Prosecutor’s Office is seeking his arrest on fabricated charges of extortion.. “I was warned that the claim has been with the Leninsky District Court for three days already,” Grinberg told CPJ. “Local authorities are fishing for any and all reasons to stop us from printing the truth.”

On August 22, investigators searched the home of Permsky Obozrevatel‘s photojournalist Vladimir Korolyov in his absence. They took personal items from his home such as video and music tapes, and his wife’s architectural drawings. Investigators told Korolyov’s wife they had issued a federal warrant for Korolyov, though she assured them he is not hiding from law enforcement but went to seek medical treatment outside Perm. They did not explain what Korolyov was wanted for, Sokolova told CPJ.

On August 10, Permsky Obozrevatel journalist Evgeniya Silivanova was followed by an unknown man as she was returning home from work at around 8 p.m. The man kept following the frightened Silivanova on the street and upstairs to her 5th floor apartment. Only when he reached her apartment door did he introduce himself as A.R. Armanian, an investigator from the Perm Prosecutor’s Office. He started shouting at Silivanova, she said, saying that she was not cooperating with an investigation. He threatened her that if she did not appear for questioning the next day, he would “make her do so by force,” Silivanova said in a written statement to the prosecutor’s office. Armanian added that Silivanova was wanted for illegal activities but never explained what those were. On August 11, Silivanova filed a complaint at the Perm Prosecutor’s Office regarding Armanian’s behavior but has not yet received a response.

On August 2, a group of about 20 law enforcement officers, including armed Federal Security Service (FSB) agents, investigators from Perm’s Prosecutor’s Office, and local police officers raided the offices of Permsky Obozrevatel and its parent company Alfa. They took computers, floppy disks, flash cards, as well as the staff roster, the paper’s documents, even items such as personal photographs. The authorities said they were investigating the paper under two articles of the Russian criminal code, for violating the private life of 600 Perm citizens and for disclosing state secrets. Authorities did not give any details on the accusations and to this day have not returned the seized equipment, according to press reports and Sokolova.

On May 25, around 30 armed, masked members of the OMON swat team stormed Permsky Obozrevatel‘s and Alfa’s offices and confiscated the paper’s and the company’s servers, allegedly on the complaint of journalist Irina Kolushchinskaya who said she was insulted on Nesekretno. Kolushchinskaya is employed by the Perm government’s newspaper Mestnoye Vremya. On June 13, the Perm Regional Court ruled in favor of the paper and ordered that authorities return the confiscated computers. Prosecutors never complied with the court ruling, and the computers are still in their possession, Sokolova told CPJ.

On March 17, then-mayoral candidate Igor Shubin ordered the seizure of Permsky Obozrevatel‘s special issue on the elections. The confiscated issue, which was never returned, contained articles about pressure by Shubin’s campaign team on Perm citizens. “Citizens used to call us at the paper, saying that authorities were forcing them to vote for Shubin,” Sokolova told CPJ. “I remember this phone call from a teacher who was crying on the phone: ‘If I don’t vote for Shubin, they’ll fire me from my job.'” Police told journalists they were seizing the issue because it contained erroneous information, Sokolova said.

Since March, Permsky Obozrevatel has changed printers twice because Perm printing houses refuse to publish it under pressure by local officials. It now uses a printer in the neighboring city of Ekaterinburg. The paper’s advertisers, Grinberg said, have also been pressured to stop placing advertisements in the paper.

Prosecutor Kondalov, it is deeply disturbing that investigators from your office are implicated in pressuring Permsky Obozrevatel‘s founder, editor and journalists. We call on you to ensure that this outrageous harassment ceases immediately. Your office must drop the criminal investigation of the newspaper’s staff, cease pressuring the journalists, return all seized computers and equipment, and allow the journalists to work without fear of official retaliation.

Thank you for your attention to this urgent matter.

We await your reply.

Joel Simon
Executive Director