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Russian blogger winds his words are carefully watched

Alex Rodriguez

By Alex Rodriguez

Chicago Tribune (MCT)

SYKTYVKAR, Russia -- Savva Terentyev doesn't hide his disdain for police. The anger threading through a rant he posted on a friend's blog made that clear. Bad cops, the young Russian songwriter wrote, should be taken to this city's downtown plaza and burned alive.

Terentyev meant his remarks for a small circle of friends who vent and muse on each other's blogs. He had no idea local police were watching.

The blog on which Terentyev posted his message was run by Boris Suranov, a Syktyvkar journalist whose newspaper had irked local authorities. Police were regularly checking entries on the blog when they came across Terentyev's posting.

Terentyev, who will be tried this week on charges of inciting hatred and faces up to two years in prison, says he never dreamed his Web comments_no matter how coarse -- could constitute a crime.

"My first reaction was, `What the hell are they doing?'" said Terentyev, a wiry, soft-spoken Russian with a scruffy red goatee who fills his time playing guitar and keyboards with a couple of Syktyvkar club bands. "But realizing what kind of state we live in, there's nothing to be surprised at."

In Russia, where authorities have tightened their grip on electronic and print media, the Internet has been one of the country's last havens for free speech. Blogging has blossomed as a wellspring of free-flowing commentary on Russian society and governance. Online newspapers have sprung up across the country, sometimes building reputations as muckrakers against corruption in their provinces.

But Russian authorities have recently begun to turn their attention to blogs and Web sites, taking actions that suggest a desire to monitor and, at times, rein in what's said on the Internet.

Earlier this year, the government ordered Internet service providers to install equipment that enables authorities to monitor e-mail. Internet providers must house the equipment in rooms that only government investigators can access.

Web sites in Siberia and northern Russia that have rankled local authorities have been ordered to register as mass media outlets, though no law exists that requires them to do so. Registering as a mass media outlet subjects the Web site to the same licensing and regulation applied to print and broadcast media.

Experts say Russian authorities worry about the Internet's potential as a formidable tool for Kremlin critics and opposition movements. In Ukraine, the pro-West Orange movement that took power in 2004 overcame the government's stranglehold on the media by relying on the Internet to help disseminate information and organize protests.

"The authorities are very concerned about the situation with the Internet," said Oleg Panfilov, director of the Moscow-based Center for Journalism in Extreme Situations. "They saw how the Internet was used in Ukraine as an alternate source of information, even when the rest of the media was controlled. So they're trying to counteract this."

In Russia, the Internet has become a fluid, evolving bazaar of blogs and Web sites unafraid of criticizing President Vladimir Putin and his hand-picked successor, President-elect Dmitry Medvedev. On a recent afternoon in March, a scroll through blogs on livejournal.com revealed a host of postings about the pair.

"Until recently, I had absolutely no opinion on the government and its policy," wrote a blogger called "bravo." "But having looked at 1/8my3/8 compatriots' servility, their worshipping of Putin, Medvedev, United Russia, I was horrified. I don't want dictatorship of falsehood. I don't want corrupt bureaucrats. I don't want freedom of speech to be infringed. I don't like this at all."

Online newspapers and magazines such as newsru.com also have sprung up and developed a following with Russians looking for alternatives to state-controlled media outlets. In the Siberian city of Abakan, an online newspaper, Novy Fokus, developed a reputation for posting articles about corruption in local government.

When the online publication mistakenly identified a local judge as the driver in a car accident that injured a child, local authorities used the error to crack down on the site, said Novy Fokus' editor-in-chief, Mikhail Afanasyev. The site was fined $2,000 for slander and another $830 for not being registered as a mass media outlet.

"The fact that we wrote about the authorities irritated them," Afanasyev said. "So they used this mistake as a pretext to shut us down."

Terentyev's trouble with the law stemmed from what he says was an isolated, uncharacteristic outburst of anger.

At 22, Terentyev is far more passionate about his two bands, Project A and Durdom, Russian for "Madhouse," than he is about politics. Almost always, his online comments have been about music, he said.

But in February 2007, frustration with local police was consuming him.

"Most of the youth here hate cops," Terentyev said during a recent interview in his Syktyvkar apartment. "Drunk cops take your passport and don't give it back."

The last straw came when police looking for Terentyev's brother appeared at the apartment and refused to put out their cigarettes. "Such situations make me extremely angry," Terentyev said.

Online, Terentyev noticed a discussion on Suranov's blog about police in a nearby town who had shut down a newspaper. Terentyev chimed in.

"It would be a good idea if in the central square of each Russian city, in Stefanovskaya Square here in Syktyvkar, a furnace were built like in Auschwitz, and a faithless cop is burned once, or better twice a day. This would be the first step toward purging society of this filth."

Terentyev said he was speaking metaphorically. "Bad cops are like a wound on the state, and the state must do something to cleanse that wound," he said.

He thought the posting would be read by a small circle of bloggers. Police, however, had been monitoring Suranov's blog. Suranov said he doesn't know why, though he suspects it's because he works as a journalist at a Syktyvkar newspaper that had angered local authorities with its coverage.

Earlier this month, Terentyev was charged with inciting hatred. His trial is slated to begin Monday.

Nikolai Basmanov, chief investigator for regional prosecutors handling the case, said Terentyev's comment was criminal because it was anti-Semitic and because he urged that an act of violence be carried out against police.

"We believe no one has right to offend other people," Basmanov said. "In Russia, there's a saying. `Words can hurt people.' "

Experts say they believe Terentyev's case will mark the first time a Russian blogger has been criminally tried for commentary on the Internet. Regardless of the outcome, bloggers in Syktyvkar believe cases such as Terentyev's dilute the exchange of opinions and ideas on the Internet, a venue for commentary that they say Russia needs nurture rather than constrain.

"This case will have an effect on most bloggers," said Igor Sazhin, a blogger and an activist with the Syktyvkar branch of Memorial, a Russian human-rights group. "Many will change the way they express themselves, and that's a bad thing. So today, we're careful with our statements, and tomorrow some topics will be hushed."

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