A Russian city administration has backed its official newspaper in an escalating dispute over a homophobic slur and accused hackers of breaching its website to publish a fake apology.
The scandal in the Artic city of Murmansk erupted in late March when the city government's official print publication, Vecherny Murmansk, published an opinion piece calling local opposition activists "militant faggots."
It comes amid what activists and Western governments call Russia's deteriorating LGBT-rights situation in recent years, including a 2013 law banning the spread of gay "propaganda" among minors that critics say promotes discrimination.
The article, titled "Terribly Tired Of Being Civil," was published on March 28 on the website of Vecherny Murmansk. It drew outrage from LGBT activists and the attention of Russia's state media watchdog, though the newspaper was not issued with an official warning.
Then, on May 4, a one-paragraph announcement appeared on the city administration's website apologizing for the "abusive language" used by the author, Dmitry Malyshev.
That apparent act of contrition was short-lived, however. The announcement was subsequently deleted (a cached version is available here), and the city issued a statement saying its website had been hacked and that there was no reason to apologize for the article.
The statement noted that Russian law bans officials from dictating how media outlets cover events or censoring their content.
Natalya Rikhter, a spokeswoman for the city government, told RFE/RL in a telephone interview that, as the founder of the newspaper, the Murmansk administration does not have a right to interfere in editorial decisions.
Asked whether the city supported the use of the homophobic phrase published by Vecherny Murmansk, Rikhter said that the administration couldn't "support it or not support it."
"Any interference is censorship," she said, adding that law-enforcement authorities were investigating the alleged hack.
Vecherny Murmansk also said on May 4 that hackers had breached its website and posted a fake apology from the author of the article that was quickly deleted. A woman who answered the phone there said no one was available to comment, and the paper did not respond immediately to an e-mailed inquiry.
Editor in Chief Viktor Khabarov, however, was quoted by his newspaper as saying the site may have been hacked by opposition protesters or LGBT-rights activists "upset with publications by Vecherny Murmansk."
Violetta Grudnina, an opposition and LGBT-rights activist mentioned in the article, said she believes the city administration is "providing cover" for Vecherny Murmansk to attack government critics in print.
"It's a message from local authorities that anyone who is against the positions of the government is a faggot," she told RFE/RL in a telephone interview.
She said she believes she and her colleagues are being targeted for their support of opposition leader Aleksei Navalny, who is seeking to run for president next year in an election widely expected to hand President Vladimir Putin another six-year term.
'Not A Bad Thing'
Asked about the article, which was published two days after nationwide anticorruption protests spearheaded by Navalny led to hundreds of arrests, Murmansk Mayor Dmitry Filippov said last month that he did not know the protesters and "couldn't gauge their [sexual] orientation."
He added that the government takes the battle against corruption seriously, and that "it's not a bad thing" that the issue of graft is drawing public attention.
Russian authorities in recent years have stepped up prosecutions of individuals accused of online hate speech, and Grudina in late March filed a complaint with prosecutors asking them to investigate whether the Vecherny Murmansk article violated Russian laws on extremism.
Local prosecutors found, however, that the article with the phrase "militant faggots" did not contain elements of hate speech, according to a copy of an official response Grudina received on May 3, a copy of which she provided to RFE/RL.
Throughout the day on May 4, a banner headline on the newspaper's website read: "URGENT! Militant Fag**ts Attack Vecherny Murmansk's Website."