Toilet Paper, Spam and a Political Hit

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Two journalists were killed on Friday -- Channel One television correspondent Ilyas Shurpayev and Gadzhi Abashilov, head of state television GTRK Dagestan.

On the same day, the State Duma passed in a second reading new legislation that would classify major print media with circulation over 1 million copies as strategic resources, thus limiting the right of foreigners to own either.

As we enter what President-elect Dmitry Medvedev has called a period of the "consolidation of stability," the media scene is shocking us almost daily with stories that evoke passionate commentary and analysis.

Here is another example: On March 4, a group of young protesters gathered outside the Kommersant publishing house, handing passers-by rolls of toilet paper printed with the newspaper's logo. The cell phone number of a Kommersant reporter who co-authored an article critical of the pro-Kremlin youth group Nashi was also written on the rolls.

On the same day, hackers launched a massive, round-the-clock attack on the Kommersant web site, which has continued to this day, according to the publisher's commercial director, Pavel Filenkov. The company ended up having to pay $130,000 for equipment to strengthen its web site security and another $25,000 for a system to filter out the huge amount of spam that inundated its server.

Kommersant employees are convinced that Nashi was behind the toilet-paper protests and the hacker attacks in retaliation for an article the newspaper ran in late January titled "Ours [Nashi] Has Become Alien." The article claimed that the same authorities who organized this group several years ago have now lost interest in it. The article quoted a high-ranking Kremlin official as saying Nashi was a bunch of "enthusiastic thugs." Nashi representatives have denied any involvement in the Kommersant attacks.

In support of its assertion that the attack was a "political hit," Kommersant points to a Nashi-attributed directive that ended up on Compromat.ru, describing a "revenge plan" over the critical article. When Kommersant realized that this was an organized campaign and not a simple act of hooliganism, it appealed to the police and prosecutors to investigate, but they refused to take any action.

Who ordered these attacks? Some of my colleagues believe that Kremlin deputy chief of staff Vladislav Surkov is behind all of this. The theory is that Surkov is striking back against Kremlin colleagues who made contemptuous comments about his beloved Nashi brainchild. At the same time, Surkov is positioning himself for the impending Kremlin shakeup by flexing his political muscle. Other colleagues of mine see it as an unsanctioned action taken by Nashi, which has realized that the authorities really have lost interest in the group.

Still other observers see the assault as some kind of signal to Alisher Usmanov, the billionaire who bought Kommersant last year from Boris Berezovsky. Many believe that this Kommersant sale was orchestrated by the Kremlin, but Usmanov seems to have failed to turn the newspaper into a Kremlin -- or his own -- mouthpiece.

Whether or not any of these conspiracy theories are true, the unwillingness of law enforcement officials to take action damages the Kremlin's reputation more than anything else.

The hacker attack on Kommersant's web site is a threat to not only one individual publisher, but to the freedom of Russia's media as a whole, and it comes at a time when both national and regional media companies are increasingly active in developing their Internet sites. Unfortunately, most of these firms lack Kommersant's name and resources to fight the hackers' attempts to censor them.

This is why I think it is in the best interests of politicians and media companies to ensure that law enforcement agencies solve this crime and that they take adequate measures to deter similar attacks.

Alexei Pankin is the editor of IFRA-GIPP Magazine for publishing business professionals.