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Media Matters: May 7, 2008

Russia: Chronicling A Samizdat Legend

Natalya Gorbanevskaya

"Because of people like Natalya Gorbanevskaya," Joan Baez once said, "I am convinced that you and I are still alive and walking around on the face of the earth."

Natalya Gorbanevskaya was the dissident behind "The Chronicle Of Current Events," a samizdat publication that first appeared 40 years ago this week in the Soviet Union.

It was Gorbanevskaya who single-handedly produced its first few editions, before she was arrested in 1969 and spent more than two years in a Soviet psychiatric facility.

But her fellow dissidents continued the publication of "Chronicle" after her arrest. Following its 1968 debut, for 15 years and 65 issues the "Chronicle" documented the Soviet regime's persecution of its own people. Its mimeographed issues waged an uneven struggle against the daily million-copy editions of "Pravda," "Izvestia," and other Soviet propaganda organs.

Grigory Yavlinsky, leader of Russia's liberal Yabloko party, tells RFE/RL's Russian Service that the "Chronicle" was a "feat of people who could not be forced to remain silent about injustice and about the crimes that were being committed in the Soviet Union.

"These people knowingly sealed their own fate. They knew that sooner or later they would be cruelly punished for this, whether by imprisonment or by exile. But even knowing this, not doubting it, they held the free movement of information, the reporting to the entire world of what was happening to people in the Soviet Union, more dearly than their own fates."

Gorbanevskaya was motivated by a United Nations declaration proclaiming 1968 the "Year of Human Rights," to mark the 20th anniversary of the adoption of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. Her cause was taken up in the West; Joan Baez wrote a song about her and talked up Gorbanevskaya's cause during concerts.

"The government of the USSR thought she was a very poor idea, and they put her in the old bughouse. She was pregnant at the time, she was very strong. She convinced herself she would be fine, she would have her child, she would go on speaking out. So every time she comes out of the loony bin she writes another poem and they put her back in," Baez once said.

Gorbanevskaya was allowed to emigrate in 1975 and today lives in Paris.

Dissident Magnet

The morally powerful dissident community of the Soviet Union coalesced around "The Chronicle Of Current Events," which continued producing several editions each year until 1983.

Dissidents including Anatoly Yakobson, Yury Shikhanovich, Pyotr Yakir, Viktor Krasin, Sergei Kovalyov, Aleksander Lavut, Tatyana Velikanova, and others worked on the "Chronicle" over the years. Most were persecuted severely for their activities.

The publication was intentionally laconic in style, trying to fill the huge void of essential factual information left by Soviet propaganda.

The first issue of the 'Chronicle'

Memorial activist Aleksandr Cherkasov has worked on the Russian human rights group's project to make the entire 6,000 pages of the "Chronicle" available online.

"There are almost no assessments there, just facts. And this composure, this outwardly serene perception of everything that happens, without hysterics, without emulating those who pressured this independent activity -- this was perhaps one of the most important features of the dissident movement in the Soviet Union," Cherkasov says. "Not to emulate the adversary, because otherwise you start resembling him."

Memorial held an event marking the 40th anniversary of the "Chronicle" at its Moscow office on April 30, attended by Gorbanevskaya and other figures connected to the publication.

Moscow Helsinki Group leader and noted human rights activist Lyudmila Alekseyeva told the crowd of some 200 people about the role "The Chronicle Of Current Events" played in her life.

"I have done a lot in the human rights movement," she said. "But I think perhaps the most important thing I did was that I typed out the first issue of the 'Chronicle.' It was an epoch-making thing."

RFE/RL's Russian Service contributed to this report

Democracy Setbacks, Energy Gains, Take Toll On Press Freedom

By Daisy Sindelar

"No to censorship" says sign at demonstration in Moscow

In its annual press-freedom survey, the U.S.-based rights watchdog Freedom House noted a decline in media environments around the globe. Nowhere is the trend more evident than in the former Soviet Union, where fading democratic movements and a mounting energy fixation have combined to see a near-total downturn in the Freedom House ranking.

Ten of the 12 non-Baltic former Soviet states are currently categorized as "not free" -- the bottommost tier of the Freedom House survey, which ranks 195 countries and territories worldwide according to the degree of legal, economic, and political freedom they offer to the media. Freedom House issued its annual survey on April 29, just ahead of the commemoration of World Press Freedom Day on May 3.

The countries at the bottom of the list are not surprising. Turkmenistan (96), Uzbekistan (92), and Belarus (91) are all frequent low-shows on global surveys, and, in the words of Freedom House's director of studies, Christopher Walker, "three of the most repressive media environments in the world" -- on a par with countries like North Korea, Burma, and Cuba. (In the Freedom House survey, 100 is the worst possible score.)

Colored Revolutions

What is more surprising -- and part of what Walker calls a "profoundly troubling trend" in the region -- is the steep decline visible in countries like Georgia and Kyrgyzstan, whose so-called colored revolutions in 2003 and 2005 were hailed at the time as setting them on an inexorable path toward democracy.

"Georgia has wrestled with consolidating press freedom since the Rose Revolution, and last year was a particular stress, in our view, on the media landscape," says Walker, noting the country's precipitous drop from a 54 in 2004 to a 60 in 2007.

The low point came in November, when opposition protests prompted President Mikheil Saakashvili to impose a state of emergency that included a blackout on all nonstate media. The dip sent Tbilisi -- currently categorized as "partly free" -- to within one point of the "not free" ranking.

Kyrgyzstan, which reached a high-water mark of 64 in 2006, this year dropped back to a 70. Only the third colored-revolution alumnus, Ukraine, has managed to hold steady at the top of the regional list with a "partly free" ranking of 53.

"Part of the explanation for Ukraine's resilience is that the democratic sinews that existed in the country at the time of the democratic opening at the end of 2004 were stronger than the other two countries," Walker says. "What we've seen in Georgia, and to a more pronounced degree in Kyrgyzstan, is that the roots for media freedom were not grown as deeply, and they're being tested in a real way now."

The Resource Factor

As the pro-democracy wave appears to be at risk of subsiding in the former Soviet Union, a new, equally threatening influence seems to be on the rise -- the influence of energy wealth.

The region's three energy powerhouses -- Russia, Azerbaijan, and Kazakhstan -- are also among those who have seen the sharpest drop in their press-freedom ratings during the past five years. (Azerbaijan from 71 to 77; Kazakhstan from 74 to 78; and Russia with an dismaying freefall from 67 to 78.)

The trend, Walker says, "confounds the assumptions" that economic strength begets better opportunities for media independence. "Despite more money flowing into these countries and having more economic wherewithal, that hasn't resulted in greater media freedom," he says.

Nor is it likely to anytime soon. Russia's decline, in particular, appears to be the product of a move away from "defensive" media restrictions to a more "offensive" strategy that uses the media to advance the interests of the regime, Walker says.

"In 2007, you could see the sort of slanted coverage that led up to the December parliamentary elections, and the generally slavishly favorable coverage of the authorities," he says. "We also saw journalists facing dozens of criminal cases, hundreds of civil suits."

Meanwhile, the murders of dozens of journalists remain unsolved -- most prominently that of Caucasus expert and vocal Kremlin critic Anna Politkovskaya, who was shot dead outside her Moscow flat in October 2006. Such cases, says Walker, suggest a "consolidated environment of impunity" in Russia.

How Vulnerable Are Countries To Cyberattacks? Ask Estonia!

By Ahto Lobjakas

Defense Minister Jaak Aaviksoo called "cyberattacks" a threat to Estonia's national security

TALLINN -- You don't know what you've got until you lose it. Rarely has the truth of that adage been driven home at a national scale as forcefully as in Estonia during the weeks that followed April 26, 2007.

A little over a year ago, Estonia became the first country in the world to come under a broad and sustained attack from the Internet. Beginning on April 27, and continuing for several weeks, anonymous foreign networks comprising hundreds of thousands of computers repeatedly disabled Estonia's Internet servers used by the government, banks, media, and other organizations by bombarding them with information requests.

Life in the Internet-saturated country was severely disrupted.

The Estonian government accused the Kremlin of calling the attacks in retaliation for the removal of a Soviet World War II memorial from central Tallinn on April 26. NATO became alarmed, and Estonia now spearheads efforts within the alliance to cope with the threat of what has become known as "cyberattacks."

Hillar Aarelaid, the director of Estonia's Computer Emergency Response Team, was to say later that during the two peaks in the attacks -- on May 10 and May 15, 2007 -- Estonia first lost 50 percent of its "bread, milk, and gasoline" for 90 minutes and then again 75 percent of the same commodities for another five minutes.

During these two episodes, the attacks, simultaneously harnessing as many as 1 million remotely controlled computers across the world, infected with malicious software without their owners' knowledge, brought down the Internet servers of Estonia's biggest bank, Hansapank, among others. People paying for their gasoline, milk, and bread -- not to mention other purchases -- suddenly found that their bank cards didn't work.

It was a rude awakening for a country where connectivity is a way of life. Peeter Marvet, a leading independent information-technology (IT) analyst, tells RFE/RL that he frequently makes this point to foreign visitors by paying by card for minor purchases such as a cup of coffee. He reminds them that when they chat via Skype -- the Internet service for making calls and exchanging messages free of charge -- they are using software that was originally developed in Tallinn.

People parking their cars in Tallinn routinely pay by text message. Free wireless Internet is ubiquitous, as are people using laptops in cafes and restaurants.

This is not to mention something as basic as access to information, public or private, for which the Internet has become the sine qua non. Estonia has an "e-government" -- government meetings now involve no paperwork. Its public administration has become an "e-state" -- people vote, pay their taxes, and perform a multitude of other operations via the Internet. Outside office hours, teachers and pupils are linked into "e-schools."

So it is no wonder that when Estonia came under cyberattack it decided to take the matter to NATO, of which it has been a member since 2004. Defense Minister Jaak Aaviksoo said at the time that the cyberattacks were a threat to Estonia's national security and likened their effect to a blockade of a country's sea ports.

From the start, Estonia sought to implicate the Russian government in orchestrating if not ordering the onslaught. However, the nature of such attacks makes it virtually impossible to track the real culprits as the computers used in them participate as "zombies," controlled by means of malicious software installed illicitly unbeknownst to their owners.

Given the difficulty of knowing who is behind cyberattacks, NATO has responded coolly to Estonian pressure to qualify cyberattacks as something that could trigger the alliance's collective defense clause. NATO made its position clearer this year, at its April 2-4 summit in Bucharest, where the alliance committed itself to provide assistance to members under cyberattack but said the member states themselves remain responsible for protection of their critical infrastructure.

One senior civilian NATO official dealing with the issue told RFE/RL in March that Estonia's response to the 2007 attacks was so effective as to preclude the need for drastic NATO action. He said NATO experts summoned by Estonia during the weeks of the attacks had learned "at least as much" as they had contributed in terms of advice.

NATO Secretary-General Jaap de Hoop Scheffer has repeatedly called Estonia "NATO's most IT-savvy nation."

He has also indicated NATO would welcome an Estonian lead role in cyberdefense. This role is shortly likely to be formalized, as Estonia is about to win NATO accreditation for a path-breaking Cyber Defense Center based in Tallinn.

Even before the 2007 attacks, Estonia had started work on the center and had applied to NATO to have it recognized as a "NATO Center of Excellence." Although such "centers of excellence" are not part of the alliance's command structure, they can and do play an important role in shaping alliance policy and capabilities. Officials in Tallinn say NATO will formally give the Estonian Cyber Defense Center its imprimatur on May 15.

It seems likely that NATO has not said its last word on cyberattacks yet. Although the debate within the alliance has, for the time being, subsided, officials acknowledge the seriousness of the threat. A NATO general working with cyberdefense policy noted in a briefing in March that the alliance is committed by its statutes to protect the stability, prosperity, freedom, and shared values of its allies, as well as civilization. "A massive cyberattack could be a threat to them all," he said.

De Hoop Scheffer is also wont to describe cyberattacks as a "21st-century threat" for the entire alliance.

Belarus: RFE/RL Cites Online 'Solidarity' In Face Of Cyberattack

By Ihar Karnej and Brian Whitmore

Internet user in Minsk (file photo)

MINSK/PRAGUE -- Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty's Belarus Service is lauding the country's online journalism community for rallying to the U.S.-funded broadcaster's assistance after its website suffered a crippling cyberattack.

The massive and coordinated attack, which began on the morning of April 26 as journalists were preparing coverage of protests in Minsk marking the 22nd anniversary of the Chornobyl nuclear disaster, knocked the service offline for more than two full days.

"We are back!" read the headline on the service's homepage when it went back online on the evening of April 28.

"Dear friends. We value your solidarity and we promise to support any site that falls victim to such an attack in the future," read the accompanying post thanking 22 Belarusian websites for hosting content from the service's journalists while the site was disabled. "Thanks to all of you for your support of freedom."

Alyaksandr Lukashuk, director of RFE/RL's Belarus Service, says the response to the attack may have set a precedent for future online esprit de corps among pro-democracy advocates and journalists.

"What we see now is the first attempt in the Belarusian Internet community to act in solidarity to an attack on press freedom," Lukashuk says. "And it may be the most valuable -- and unexpected -- result of this attack."

It is still unclear who was behind the attack. But the fact that Belarusian opposition websites like those of Charter 97 and European Radio for Belarus were hit at the same time as RFE/RL has led many to suspect the regime of authoritarian President Alyaksandr Lukashenka was the mastermind.

Timing Is Everything

The attack comes at a time of heightened tensions between Washington and Minsk. Belarus has stepped up the arrest of pro-democracy activists and has ordered the United States to reduce the size of its embassy in Minsk to five people.

RFE/RL's Lukashuk says a smaller-scale cyberattack targeted his service's website on the same date in 2007.

In an online poll conducted on the Belarus Service's website, 87 percent of respondents blame the authorities for the attack.

"The character of the attack shows that the Belarusian authorities continue to block information on the Internet," Natalia Radina, the editor in chief of Charter 97's website, tells RFE/RL's Belarus Service. "Usually this happens during protest actions and election campaigns. What is particular to this case is that it was not just the case of [state telecom agency] Beltelekom blocking a site. It was a DOS attack. This is evidence that the Belarusian authorities use criminal actions against opposition sites."

DOS, or "denial-of-service" attacks, attempt to make a targeted website unavailable to users, normally by flooding the site with fake requests to communicate.

RFE/RL has been a frequent target of DOS attacks, but the latest incident was unprecedented in scale.

The attack against RFE/RL was so powerful that it penetrated the firewall that protects all the broadcasters' online activities and temporarily disabled a total of eight of its websites, affecting services to Kosovo, Azerbaijan, Tajikistan, Iran, the Balkans, Russia, and Tatarstan, in addition to Belarus.

At the attack's height, RFE/RL websites were receiving up to 50,000 fake hits every second.

Official Hostility

Belarus is regularly cited as having one of the world's most repressive media environments. Freedom House, a U.S.-based rights monitor whose annual press freedom survey was issued on April 29, ranks Belarus alongside Turkmenistan and Uzbekistan as three of its worst performers globally on media rights.

Christopher Walker, the director of studies at Freedom House, says the regime in Minsk has in recent years expanded its overall media crackdown to include the Internet -- one of the few places where journalists and ordinary citizens can still communicate without "government filters."

"Belarus falls into the category of a country whose possibilities for unrestricted discussion are greatest on the Internet at the moment, and it's one of the few positive areas there," Walker says. "Nevertheless, the authorities there work assiduously to restrict media freedom, and I think this has been a clear trend over quite a few years now."

Internet experts say it is extremely difficult to determine the origins of a DOS attack.

Yury Zisir chairs the popular Minsk-based web portal, which suffered a cyberattack earlier this year and has still not discovered the culprit despite reporting the incident to the police and conducting its own internal investigation.

"The reaction [from the police] when they tried to figure it out was that it is impossible to find the source," Zisir says. "Such an attack is very cheap to carry out. For $100 a day, you can order a hit [against a website] with no problem. It is cheap and it is not possible to find the source."

He says that's own investigation led it to a provider on the island of Borneo. "Supposedly there was a program there [on Borneo] that was behind everything," Zisir says. "It was clear that there was [already] nothing there. Somebody was just taunting us."

RFE/RL Belarus Service Director Discusses Cyberattack

Alyaksandr Lukashuk

Following a cyberattack on April 26 that targeted the website of RFE/RL's Belarus Service and affected a number of other RFE/RL websites, service Director Alyaksandr Lukashuk discussed the attack and what his service did to get their message out to their audience in Belarus.

RFE/RL: Can you explain what happened to the Belarus Service's website?

Alyaksandr Lukashuk: On Saturday, April 26, we were preparing special intense coverage of mass protests in Minsk dedicated to the anniversary of the Chornobyl disaster. Several thousand people were gathering in Minsk and usually we cover them online as we are off-air at this time. At the moment when the march was to begin, 2 p.m. local time, all of the sudden we noticed that we could not operate normally on our website. It became slower and slower and literally within a couple of minutes we lost the site.

RFE/RL: How did you react? How were you able to get the news out to your audience?

Lukashuk: There was not much we could do because at this moment we also lost e-mail communication and Skype communication with Belarus. As we found out later, the attack was so massive that the firewall that protects Radio Free Europe went down. And a number of other [RFE/RL] sites went down as well.

So we went back to our old methods, calling our correspondents over the phone, taking their messages, recording them here, and making [shortwave] radio programs. And as for the radio program, we were able to put it together as it should have been, and it went on the air ok.

RFE/RL: Since you have been off the air for so long, how did you get the word out for people to tune in to their shortwave radios again?

Lukashuk: That was a problem. That is why we used other friendly sites to advertise our radio programming.

RFE/RL: And what about the website?

Lukashuk: As for the website, we regained out ability to receive materials from Belarus via e-mail in a couple of hours. We received dozens of excellent photos from the march, we received 15 video clips, and we posted them. The only unfortunate thing is that we were the only ones, as it turns out, that could see this material.

RFE/RL: So how were you able to get that material out?

The attack continued for two days and for two days we were announcing on air to our listeners. [In the past] we would say [on the radio that] you can go for more details to our website. But now we were telling people who usually go to the website to tune in to the radio. We started to alert our friends.

There is a group of supporters in Belarus called the Friends of Liberty who are active on LiveJournal, who have their own chatrooms, which is called "circle of friends of Radio Liberty." They started to send out the news that we are not accessible. We gave them our publications, our articles, and they started to send them out over the weekend. But the major event happened on Monday [April 28].

RFE/RL: What happened then?

Lukashuk: This morning [April 28] when we came to the office, we decided to issue an appeal to the independent media and Internet community in Belarus asking them for solidarity. More than 30 organizations that have their own sites responded positively and began to take our material that was posted on LiveJournal and publish it on their websites as their top story. Among them is the site of European Radio for Belarus, the site of Charter 97, the site of the independent trade union organization Solidarity. These are quite popular sites and they now deliver our coverage as their top story.

RFE/RL: It isn't a new thing for RFE/RL to be attacked. What other attempts have there been to silence RFE/RL and how did you deal with those and how does it compare to this situation?

In terms of the Internet, our site is 10 years old. This is the worst attack that has ever happened on the Belarus site and, as far as I know, on RFE/RL in general.

As far as the bigger historical picture, yes, there were decades of jamming and our audience had a hard time looking for the RFE/RL signal on different shortwave frequencies. That was the reason why the same program was broadcast on three, four, sometimes five different frequencies simultaneously to make it more difficult for jamming. So there is some history to this kind of thing.

In terms of effect, is there a difference between a cyberattack and old-style jamming?

The new aspect to this is that during the old times, when the authorities in the totalitarian countries jammed RFE/RL, they jammed only the signal from the broadcaster. But nowadays, the Internet is an interactive tool. By jamming our Internet publication, those who do it also jam the voices of hundreds of people who participate in the online discussions, who send their comments, questions, photos, and videos to us. Now they are also deprived of this. So in a way, this was a more harmful attack.

Do you see anything positive coming out of this experience?

What we see now is the first attempt in the Belarusian Internet community to act in solidarity to an attack on press freedom. And it may be the most valuable -- and unexpected -- result of this attack.