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A New Tactic In Russia's War On Free Press

Valery Smetanin, editor in chief of "Ivanovo-press," told RFE/RL's Russian Service in October: "Local authorities read us avidly. They don't like us, but every Tuesday, there's not a single bureaucrat who can sleep peacefully until they've read our latest
MOSCOW -- A group of OMON special police forces this week raided the office of an regional newspaper known for its criticism of local leaders.

That's nothing unusual in Russia, where independent journalists routinely face pressure from authorities.

What is unprecedented, however, is the subsequent arrest of the newspaper's top managers and the nature of the accusations against them.

The editor in chief and the two founders of the "Ivanovo-press" weekly in central Russia were detained on charges of publishing paid-for articles.

"Zakazukha," the practice of accepting payment to publish articles, is common practice among Russian journalists, and a routine way for local image-makers to slip slavish praise or damning claims about a person or product into the press.

But although Russia singles out this type of bribery for punishment -- Article 204 of the Criminal Code prohibits "commercial graft by an organized group with preliminary agreement" -- this is the first time in the country's post-Soviet history that it has been used against the media.

"In theory, yes, these charges can be applied in instances when offenses are committed like the ones the investigators are now bringing up," says Andrei Richter, the director of the Media and Law Institute in Moscow.

"But I think that detaining suspects, preventing journalists from doing their work on the grounds that they've committed this offense, is disproportionate. These journalists are obviously not trying to hide from investigators."

Investigators claim the newspaper was paid up to $14,000 per commissioned article. It is not clear how many such articles the paper is accused of accepting, or what their subject matter was. But the three defendants are each facing the possibility of stiff punishment -- up to four years in prison -- if found guilty.

Official Disapproval

The case has left media watchers, like Richter, scratching their heads and raised concerns that the legal assault on "Ivanovo-press" may be driven by political motives.

Natalia Mozilova, a local television journalist who witnessed the January 26 raid, says law enforcement officials have been unusually tight-lipped about the case. She says the raid and the subsequent arrests appear to have been carried out by federal forces.

"Everything was sealed up; men in masks prevented us from filming anything. They said that three people, including the founders of the newspaper and the editor, had been detained as part of the investigation," Mozilova says. "I called the Investigative Committee here and I was told that it was not involved in the arrest. The police are also declining to comment."

The newspaper's troubles could be linked to its fierce criticism of local authorities. The weekly recently denounced rampant corruption in Ivanovo's police force.

In an interview with RFE/RL's Russian Service four months ago, the newspaper's editor in chief, Valery Smetanin, hinted at tensions with the local government.

"We simply choose to work and write about what we see, as long as this is not against the law. The fact that this displeases some people doesn't mean it's forbidden," Smetanin said.

"Local authorities read us avidly. They don't like us, but every Tuesday, there's not a single bureaucrat who can sleep peacefully until they've read our latest issue."

With the top management of "Ivanovo-press" now behind bars for an indefinite period, local officials are likely sleeping a lot sounder.