Russia Fines Supporters of Independent Online TV Station

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TV2 Tomsk executives fear new crackdown could spread across Russia

TV2 Tomsk turned to the Internet after being forced off public airwaves in a dispute with authorities.

Russians who have been holding unsanctioned placard protests in support of an independent Siberian TV station that earlier this year was forced online have been temporarily held by police and fined as much as $580 each in what appears to be a crackdown by authorities to avoid further protests.

One pensioner was hospitalized with heart trouble after his arrest, and another man taken to a clinic with hypertension, said executives at TV2 in Tomsk, Siberia, which was considered Russia's last independent TV station before it was taken off the air in January for allegedly breaching conditions in a state TV signal transmission contract.

The station, which has been available to subscribers only via the Internet since it lost its bid to stay on air, said the recent arrests of  eight activists who have protested in the Siberian city 2,235 miles east of Moscow may be unconstitutional.

The latest incident was Saturday night, when Leonid Rybakov was arrested and managed to call a friend from a borrowed mobile phone at a city medical clinic after suffering a hypertension attack during the arrest.

Earlier this month, pensioner Natalia Lebedeva was fined $580 (30,000 roubles), nearly three times the official monthly living wage in Russia. The case of another pensioner, Anatoly Vtorushin, has been put on hold after he became ill in court and was rushed to the hospital.

Political protests involving more than one person in Russia may only be held after approval of an application to police and local authorities.

However, freedom of speech is guaranteed under the country's post-Soviet constitution, adopted in 1993, and a federal law of 2004. Protests by individuals do not require permission, provided they stand a certain distance from any other protestors and are not near sensitive areas, such police stations, courts or security installations. The Tomsk protestors insist their pickets have been conducted strictly within the law.

But the systematic arrest and fining of members of the group suggests Russian authorities are adopting a new interpretation of the law, Viktor Muchnik, TV2's editor in chief, told The Hollywood Reporter.

"It is clear the police in Tomsk have adopted a new technique concerning undeclared pickets. Whereas earlier they only took into account the distance between picketers, now several people united by a common idea are being treated as if they are a collective action," he said.

The approach, initially adopted against TV2 protestors, was now being extended to local people holding actions in support of other pro-democracy issues, he added. "It seems as if in Tomsk the authorities are working out a new method of combating protest actions, and that in the future, this practice will be extended to other parts of Russia."

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