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Provincial media suffer persecution in Russia

KIMRY, Russia — A shotgun cracked through the silence of a cold January night in this small town on the Volga River, sending a load of birdshot smashing through the ground-floor apartment window into a framed picture on the wall.

Journalist Fyodor Penkin recalls ducking behind a bookshelf, even as a second shot was fired at his kitchen window.

The attacker is still at large, but Penkin blames the security services. He sees a simple motive: to intimidate an independent journalist in the provinces.

While international attention focuses on the government's attempts to curb the big news organizations in Moscow, provincial media are also coming under increasing threat, according to media watchdog groups.

Last year, 54 journalists in Russia were beaten, stabbed or tear-gassed in apparent reprisal for reports critical of authorities, according to Russia's Center for Journalism in Extreme Situations. Already by mid-March this year, 15 more attacks had been reported.

The Paris-based World Association of Newspapers said last month that after Colombia, Russia was the world's most dangerous country for journalists. It lists six journalists killed last year in Russia; others say up to 16 have died.

Newspaper editions have been seized, television and radio stations taken off the air, journalists arrested and TV and photo cameras confiscated, according to the Glasnost Defense Foundation.

Relations between independent media and provincial authorities have never been rosy, but with Boris Yeltsin in the Kremlin, regional officials seemed to be restrained by his vocal defense of media freedom.

Yeltsin's successor, Vladimir Putin, also declares support for a free press. But human rights activists allege that Putin's actions indicate a major policy shift, and that provincial bosses are taking their cue from him.

"Our regional political elite has always imitated the federal one," said Naum Nim, chief editor of the Index/Dossier on Censorship magazine, founded by Russia's Glasnost Defense Foundation. "They see that this kind of behavior has been endorsed."

In September, Putin signed the Information Security Doctrine, which spoke of "information wars" waged against the government by unspecified foreign enemies.

The document urged creating more state-controlled media to ensure "the broadcasting of reliable information to the Russian people." The provinces were quick to take up the idea. "A new state propaganda machine is being created in the federal districts, with new state-run newspapers, new state-run news agencies, new state-run TV channels," said Oleg Panfilov, the head of the Center for Journalism in Extreme Situations.

Authorities have started to clear the way by reining in independent media, Panfilov alleged.

Kimry, 100 miles north of Moscow, is in an impoverished province of about 83,000 people. The town has graceful but crumbling mansions from a century ago and concrete blocks built in communist times. Its only independent newspaper is Volzhskoye Vremya, or Volga Time, edited by Penkin, the victim of the birdshot attack.

Penkin says he has received scores of death threats and his windows have been smashed so often by bricks that he has installed bars. He has been questioned by tax police and his offices searched. Last month his newspaper was banned without explanation from 20 of about 40 shops in Kimry that carried it.

"Here in Kimry we have the same things that are happening in Moscow — but in a twisted, distorted fashion," he said.

Boris Timoshenko, who monitors attacks on regional press for the Glasnost Defense Foundation, said the actions seem to be retribution for scores of articles in Volzhskoye Vremya accusing local officials of corruption.

Kimry has three other publications. One is owned by the district administration. Another, funded by a local distillery, is staunchly pro-government, and the third is a trade newspaper run by a factory.

Penkin said he is losing the battle for his newspaper, even though Kimry is in the Tver region, rated by watchdog groups as among the least hostile to the free press.

Penkin's paper is one of many that blossomed with the collapse of the Soviet Union. But the journalist — in his 40s, with a heavy beard that makes him look like a 19th-century merchant — feels that the freedoms of post-communist times are dwindling.

"Ten years ago, when I was creating this newspaper, I felt for the first time that I can write freely," he said. "Now this child I have created is dying before my eyes."