Bakiyev's government invoked Microsoft's name in a raid that shut a critical TV station. (AP/Sergei Grits)
Bakiyev's government invoked Microsoft's name in a raid that shut a critical TV station. (AP/Sergei Grits)

Microsoft, piracy, and independent media in Kyrgyzstan

When the independent television outlet Stan TV was raided by Kyrgyz financial police on April 1, authorities claimed they were investigating the use of unlicensed software. The timing of the raid implied a different motivation. As CPJ reported at the time, the day before, the Kyrgyz courts had shut down the pro-opposition newspaper Forum. In the previous month, two other newspapers, Achyk Sayasat (Open Politics) and Nazar (Viewpoint), were suspended for allegedly insulting the now-ousted president, Kurmanbek Bakiyev. The regional news Web sites Ferghana and Centrasia were blocked as well. Stan TV was in the midst of covering the growing opposition in the country, and the raid effectively silenced the station.

Selective enforcement of alleged software infringement is being used with some frequency in the former Soviet republics as cover to harass independent media. Local law enforcement officials have been given broad powers, in the name of fighting piracy, to raid premises and seize hardware. For the most part, Western companies and governments have encouraged this broadening of powers–but they have not insisted on checks to ensure such powers are not misused. As a result, abuses of power are being committed in the names of those companies.

Stan TV employees told CPJ that police were accompanied by a technical expert, Sergey Pavlovsky, who claimed to be a representative of Microsoft’s Bishkek office. According to the journalists, Pavlovsky said he had authorization papers from Microsoft but was unwilling to show them. After a cursory inspection of the computers, they said, Pavlovsky declared all of the equipment to be using pirated software. Stan TV’s work computers, as well as the personal laptops of journalists, were seized; the offices were also sealed, interrupting the station’s work.

As Jeffrey Carr reported on his Forbes‘ blog today, Microsoft later said that “the raid against Stan Media was initiated by the Kyrgyz police without any involvement from any Microsoft employees or anyone working on Microsoft’s behalf.” The company acknowledged that personnel involved in the Stan TV raid had represented Microsoft in previous “enforcement actions.” 

As president of the Kyrgyz Association of Rights Holders of Intellectual Property Protection, Pavlovsky has frequently spoken in the region on behalf of companies like Microsoft. In 2007, he spoke of his work detecting and pursuing the users of pirated Windows software. Kyrgyz law requires that a copyright holder initiate a complaint before financial police will investigate.

CPJ has documented previous occasions in the former Soviet republics in which authorities used Microsoft’s name in pursuing independent media. In November 2007, the Samara edition of award-winning Russian newspaper Novaya Gazeta was effectively shut down due to accusations that the company was using unlicensed Microsoft software. And in February 2008, two Russian newspapers, Tolyatinskoye Obozreniye and the St. Petersburg weekly Minuty Veka, had their computers seized on suspicion of infringing on Microsoft products. The editor of Tolyatinskoye Obozreniye said she showed police the licenses for her computers, but she was ignored.

The close cooperation between law enforcement and multinational companies gives prosecutors valuable cover for politically motivated seizures. It also has damaging consequences for the software and media companies who are being used as an excuse.

While Microsoft officials were not explicitly consulted in connection with the raid of Stan TV, the company cannot be surprised when the president of an organization ostensibly protecting the company’s interests in the region–someone with whom they have worked in the past–claims that he is acting on their behalf. 

At a time when other rights holders are lobbying for stronger international copyright enforcement provisions, notably through the current negotiations over the Anti-Counterfeiting Trade Agreement, they should also understand the damage such broad powers can have in the wrong hands. 

Software piracy is a legitimate and widespread problem in many parts of the world, including the former Soviet states. But rights holders like Microsoft need to actively condemn the selective use of their name, and work to prevent their local representatives from being used in politically motivated attacks.

The political balance has shifted in Kyrgyzstan over the past week. After the ousting of President Bakiyev, Stan TV told CPJ that its computers were returned without explanation and that no charges were filed. The channel has resumed broadcasting. Whoever finally takes the reins of the Kyrgyz government, however, will still retain extraordinary capabilities to disrupt the media–and the temptation to use them in the name of protecting well known companies and brands.