Posts Tagged ‘censorship’
Yesterday I participated in a Conference on Cyber Dissidents held in Dallas jointly by George W. Bush Institute and Freedom House. Despite mixed feelings about GWB’s presidency, I decided to take part; I try to use every opportunity to share my views and listen to others. Both President Bush and his wife participated in the event too (Laura Bush stayed the whole day).
Thanks to the ash cloud from Iceland I had to participate via video conferencing. After all, it wouldn’t be a cyber dissidents event if everyone managed come and without these geek things. We used ooVoo and Skype and both worked well (the former one allowed multiple people to participate simultaneously but is either paid or ad-sponsored).
Here is a transcript of my speech:
It is honor for me to speak at this conference. I managed to watch most of the presentations and I find them amazing. I’ll share some experience that we have in Russia with the new media.
1. Almost all conventional media are blocked:
– TV directly or indirectly owned by the government;
– most radio stations and newspapers are either controlled by the authorities, or self-censored, or have little general impact.
2. Internet became a natural resort for people looking for uncensored information and free exchange of ideas.
3. Traditional ways of involvement into civic or political activities on the Internet are:
– users can gain access to alternative sources of news and opinions;
– people discuss political issues in blogs and forums that are extremely popular in the Runet (like LiveJournal);
– grassroots groups organize online and offline actions using social networks and blogs.
More online tools are utilized by protest groups including Twitter, video blogging, live broadcasts, civil journalism and Web 2.0.
Interestingly, more and more grassroots initiatives, not connected with any political groups, start on the Internet.
As penetration rate of the new technologies increases, they rapidly replace TV as the main political media.
4. Government is trying to stop this process. They are making it in a smarter way than Iranian or Chinese authorities. They don’t block all the “bad sites” right away. In fact, very few Websites are permanently blocked in Russia.
Instead, they hire hackers to put the Websites or blogs down. Targets of such attacks included Estonian official sites, leading independent online news media, opposition groups’ Websites and individual bloggers. Some of such attacks are extremely powerful and expensive.
Another way of dealing with “uncomfortable” bloggers is more conventional: persecution. Since 2008, more and more bloggers have been sentenced for “extremism.” After some recent amendments to the criminal law, almost any criticism may be considered inciting hatred against social groups–extremism. For instance, people who discussed police brutality were sentenced for inciting hatred against the police and a guy who criticized his governor was sentenced for inciting hatred against the local government as a social group. There’s no limit to your imagination.
Such showcases make many more bloggers think twice before posting anything critical.
Ultimately, the government invests a lot into their own resources. They hire Internet experts, make deals with leading sites and buy popular websites including LiveJournal. This is one of the most serious challenges to the protest groups because we’ll never match the government’s resources.
But we are still superior in creativity and enthusiasm.
Russian bloggers have a reason for a small celebration today. For the first time, a blogger was cleared of all extremist charges. Dmitry Soloviev could face up to two years inprisonment for criticizing the police and FSB on his blog. See more on his case here.
The investigation started in August 2008 and in March 2009 Dmitry (who is a member of Oborona, by the way) was charged with “inciting hatred, hostility and degrading a social group of people—the police and FSB,” a violation of the infamous paragraph 282 of the Russian Criminal Code. The blog posts dealt with “siloviki” participating in political repression and contained no calls for violence or even curse words. However, the investigator was very confident that Soloviev would be convicted, and so were the prosecutors: Dmitry’s persecution has been prolonged a number of times, most recently by Deputy Chief Prosecutors. The case lasted almost 1.5 years.
Persecution of Soloviev became a widely discussed topic, a committee in his support was found in Moscow; I was one of its members. Hundreds of bloggers signed a petition in support of Dmitry, but its addressees (Dmitry Medvedev, Vladimir Putin, State Duma, Prosecutor’s Office and the Investigative Committee) ignored it. Bloggers resorted to civil disobedience: dozens of them reposted the “extremist” entries on their blogs, some did it publicly at a Moscow’s central square. The government had to choose between persecuting hundreds people countrywide and ignoring this “act of extremism.” They chose the latter. The officer who was investigating Soloviev’s case was overwhelmed with letters and calls in support of Dmitry.
Ultimately, the detective began to give in. In mid-2009 he agreed to hold an independent examination of Dmitry’s texts outside Kemerovo (where it would be harder for him or FSB to press on the experts). Both such groups of experts, in Moscow and in Tomsk, found no signs of extremism in Dmitry’s texts. The investigation lost any sense after that and on the last day of 2009 the case was closed.
There’s not much to celebrate, however. More and more criminal investigations are being opened against bloggers in Russia, most connected to the same paragraph 282. Dozens of bloggers have been convicted of “extremism” or have been charged with it in last two years. There have been no cases (at least known ones) when bloggers were acquitted, and Soloviev is the first one who was cleared of the charges. Most are sentenced to either fine or conditional imprisonment. Some, like Irek Murtazin, former spokesman of Tatarstan President Mintimir Shaymiev, go to jail. Russian authorities justify such harsh measures by the growth of xenophobia, but in fact accusation of extremism is widely used to silence criticism of the government and bloggers are a target number one.
According to Russian media (in Russian), Ministry of Home Affairs (whose main agency is police) held tactical maneuvers in Moscow suburbs today. During these maneuvers, SWAT troops were trained to disperse, according to the script, “a group of senior citizens that protested social injustice and blocked a federal highway.” In order to do this, the whole arsenal was used by the police: water cannons, shock grenades, and tear gas. Troops blocked and arrested some of the “senior citizens.”
Minister Rashid Nurgaliev was watching the maneuvers and was apparently satisfied. A lot of civilian journalists couldn’t share his optimism. Even the reports of government TV called the event “very strange.” Here is a report of Vesti news TV channel (one of the most official TV channels owned by the government, in Russian):
Of course, when the scandal broke out, MHA hurried to deny any references to senior people in their maneuvers’ script, the use of water cannons and the very fact of maneuvers; state TV channels removed their news reports from their Web sites. Fortunately, somebody saved the clips and uploaded them to YouTube.
A briefing was held last Thursday in the US Helsinki Commission (officially named the Commission on Security and Cooperation in Europe) dedicated to the use of microblogs and new media to promote freedom in authoritarian countries. A lot was said about Russia, and I’ll just cite Daniel Calingaert of Freedom House, who referred to a few recent examples of how we utilized Web 2.0 to spread information about electoral fraud:
Citizens in the former Soviet Union have used new media to assert their rights and to challenge abuses of power. In Russia, for example, the Internet was the primary means for drawing attention to fraud in this month’s local elections. When observers in the Moscow district of Zyablikovo found a group of individuals hired to vote for United Russia multiple times, they used Twitter and Livejournal blogs to spread the news immediately and to publish photos of the violators.
A member of that district’s electoral commission, [Andrey Klyukin] gave an online interview to describe in detail the plan behind this fraud. The interview was widely viewed on Russian YouTube and covered by several traditional media outlets. Another group of observers published video footage of a polling-station chairman in the city of Azov as he tried to mix fraudulent ballots which had already been filled in for United Russia with legitimate ballots. This video became a hit in the Russian blogosphere and prompted a criminal investigation of the polling-station chairman. Digital media spread the news of voter fraud in Russia’s local elections and contributed to a real-world response. The news triggered a public demonstration on October 12th
in Moscow’s Pushkin Square and prompted all three opposition parties to walk out of Parliament in protest.
Authoratian governments are aware of the threat that new media pose to them and they use a wide arsenal to silent online criticism, Mr Calingaert continues:
Authoritarian regimes in the former Soviet republics and elsewhere continue to repress their citizens, and this repression extends to digital media. In Russia, for example, Internet freedom has declined significantly in recent years, as bloggers have become subject to hacker attacks, legal prosecution and physical violence. Although there is no technical filtering in Russia, officials often make phone calls to pressure web hosts or Internet service providers to remove unwanted content. The director of a leading hosting company, Master Host, admitted that his company gets about 100 requests a day to remove content from inconvenient – so-called “inconvenient” Web sites.
From The Huffington Post.
May 20, 2009.
He who controls the past controls the future. He who controls the present controls the past.
Russia now has its own little Ministry of Truth. Dmitry Medvedev issued the decree to create a new body with a long but meaningful name: the Presidential Commission for Prevention of Falsification of History to the Prejudice of Russia’s Interests. This Commission will monitor “attempts to falsify historical facts and events” that may undermine “the international prestige of the Russian Federation” and coordinate efforts of government institutions of “adequate response to… and neutralization” of such attempts.
26 of 29 members of the Commission are either public servants or represent state bodies (or both), including FSB and SVR (External Intelligence Service). Head of Medvedev’s Administration will be the Chairman of the Commission. Only two professional historians are going to participate, both representing the semi-governmental Russian Academy of Science.
Although the Commission has no legal authority, there is no doubt that it may be very powerful thanks to its high status. Powerful–and useful for dealing with unwanted ideas. Since “falsification of history” is a very vague definition, their field of work is only limited by their own fantasy. Two topics are almost sure to be the first on the Commission’s agenda: Holodomor (famine in Ukraine and some other parts of the USSR, allegedly planned and organized by Stalin) and the occupation of Baltic states by the USSR. But soon, more subjects are probably to come. Russia’s newest history textbooks call Stalin an “efficient manager” and his mass political repressions “side effects of modernization”. KGB is rehabilitated and its proud successor FSB is the most powerful state agency. Any attempt to argue against these axioms will undoubtfully be considered a “falsifiaction of history” and equated with a thoughtcrime.
Russian stock markets had a hard day today. Two main indexes fell at rates unseen since the August 1998 supercrisis: RTSI lost 19.1% of its morning value, MMVB lost 18.7%. Among the most unfortunate companies are giants like NorNikel (mining), Sistema (telecom), VTB (bank), UralSvyazInvest (telecom), and even Rosneft (petrol) who stole bought YUKOS’ assets.
This drop was the biggest in the world and is perceived by many as the end to the Putin’s “stability”. The long-promised economical crisis is not at the doorstep any more. It is here and its scale appears to be greater than anywhere else in the world (except maybe just for Ukraine with its traditionally weaker economy).
What’s notable is the reaction of Russian media, TV in particular, to this historical event. The two major TV channels (both state-owned) didn’t even mention this “black Monday”. On the contrary, while stock brokers were watching RTSI and MMVD indexes falling a point after a point, ORT and RTR news hosts said that “Russian economy is more protected against the crisis than economies of other countries”. They showed Dmitry Medvedev meeting in Kremlin with oligarch Mikhail Friedman whose assets include shares in cellular operators MTS (dropped -17% today) and Beeline (-23%), X5 Retail Group (-28%) et al. Friedman and Medvedev were telling each other that Russia’s economy is safe and that this crisis provides more opportunities for the national business. Then TV channels showed foreign stock markets and reported that Dow Jones passed a “psychological mark” of 10,000 points. None of them took time to say that Russian RTSI passed a “psychological mark” of 1000 points and then another “psychological mark” of 900 points with ease.
This way of dealing with the crises and avoiding their political consequences reminded me of a well-known Soviet story. When Chernobyl nuclear plant exploded and caused fallout in the whole Eastern Europe in 1986, Soviet television didn’t mention it. They thought it would cause panic and undermine the image of USSR at home and abroad. A few days later citizens of Kyiv and other Ukrainian and Belarussian cities next to Chernobyl participated in the traditional May 1st demonstrations in support of CPSU under radioactive rain. Several days later, however, fallout reached Scandinavia and was noticed by the West. Soviets then had to admit not only the disaster but also their lies and attempts to hide it. Looks like the modern Russian media chooses the same strategy.
Below is my latest column for RobertAmsterdam.com dedicated to Dmitry Soloviev’s case and attempts of the FSB to crack down on bloggers.
FSB: a Final Solution for Bloggers
Dmitry Soloviev, a leader of the Oborona youth movement in Kemerovo region, faces criminal charges for criticizing the “siloviki” in a LiveJournal blog. He is accused by the regional prosecutor of posting information that “incites hatred, hostility and degrades a social group of people—the police and FSB”. According to the anti-extremist legislation introduced in 2006 (more specifically, the infamous paragraph 282 of the Criminal Code), he may face up to two years imprisonment if convicted.