Russia: RIP freedom of speech?

As the conflict in Ukraine escalates, Russia cracks down on media outlets and social media networks.

Founder of Russian social media network Vkontakte, Pavel Durov, has said that Russia is 'incompatible' with internet business [AP]
Founder of Russian social media network Vkontakte, Pavel Durov, has said that Russia is 'incompatible' with internet business [AP]

Over the past decade, governments around the world have tightened their control over the free flow of information to address what they see as potential security concerns. The US has its Patriot Act and PRISM programme developed by the National Security Agency or NSA, and the UK has its Data Retention and Investigatory Powers (DRIP) surveillance law.

Similarly, Russia has never been famed for its freedom of speech and has designed its own fair share of censorship and information control policies.

The decision a year ago to grant asylum to self-proclaimed whistleblower Edward Snowden should in no way be interpreted as a support to civil liberties in the world. It was instead an act of retaliation towards Washington, following the sanctions voted by the US Congress after the death of Sergei Magnitsky, a Russian lawyer who had uncovered the details of a massive fraud by Russian officials.

Indeed, when Russian President Vladimir Putin tried to use his hosting of Snowden to whitewash his own record on human rights and freedom of speech, the former NSA analyst himself argued that Putin was using the same liberticidal surveillance programme, as the ones he had denounced in the US, using similar denial tactics and brandishing the usual pretext of fighting terrorism.

The crisis in Ukraine has pushed the Kremlin to clamp down on freedom of speech and information even further, in an attempt to control the message reaching its citizens on what is going on in its southern neighbour.

Crackdown on media

Over the last few months, Putin has indeed surfed over his record domestic popularity ratings to increase his control over public opinion in Russia. On July 22, Putin signed a law that forces social media sites used in Russia to store personal data on domestic servers, thus preventing them from using international networks as a potential backup. Starting September 2016, when the law takes effect, the Kremlin will be able to block any social media network which circulates content that is not to the liking of the Kremlin.

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Another law passed late June gives Russia’s media watchdog, Roskomnadzor, the authority to shut down any website labelled as “extremist” – a loosely defined term which could include anything from terrorism to merely disagreeing with the current regime – as well as imprison people who post alleged calls to extremism.

Since the escalation in Ukraine in early spring, news websites have been under the close scrutiny of Roskomnadzor, especially those of independent media outlets and blogs of key opposition leaders. Several have been blocked since the beginning of the year, including the official website of Alexei Navalny, who finished second in the recent mayoral elections in Moscow, running on a political platform of the liberalisation of politics and fighting corruption. The website of opposition leader and former World Chess Champion, Gary Kasparov, was also censored.

The Kremlin has also taken to pressuring foreign social media networks. Roskomnadzor officials held several meetings with Twitter representatives and demanded the blocking of a dozen accounts they deem “extremist”. However, Twitter refused to comply so far and only blocked one of those accounts held by Ukrainian nationalist group Pravyi Sektor.

Leading media figures have been sidelined or forced to leave. In April, Pavel Durov, the founder of the first Russian social media network Vkontate, dubbed by some as the “Russian Mark Zuckerberg”, left the country after being ousted from the reins of his own company by telecommunication mogul and Putin supporter Alisher Usmanov. “Unfortunately, the country is incompatible with internet business at the moment (…) I’m afraid there is no going back (for me), not after I publicly refused to cooperate with the authorities,” Durov said. 

Yet Roskomnadzor does not stop at trying to muzzle social media. It recently went as far as launching an investigation into the publisher of Marvel Comics in Russia, after a complaint about their content denigrating Soviet symbols and promoting violence.

The Russian government has also felt compelled to tighten the editorial line of its foreign language broadcaster, Russia Today (RT), which until recently used to offer a fresh alternative perspective to mainstream media. Following the biased reports on the shooting down of the Malaysia Airlines plane over Ukraine, Sara Firth, a London correspondent for the network for five years, tendered her resignation letter; she said that the coverage of the MH17 tragedy was “the most shockingly obvious misinformation”. Two of her colleagues, Liz Wahl and Abby Martin, also either resigned earlier this year in protest of RT’s coverage of the conflict in Ukraine.

The most sinister call to come out of the Kremlin as of yet is Putin’s proposal to create an international security system. What that would look like and what prerogatives it would give to states to suppress freedom of information is anyone’s guess.

One thing is certain, though: As the crisis in Ukraine worsens and the rift between Russia and the West deepens, the Kremlin is likely to continue with its crackdown on freedom of speech and information.

Remi Piet is Assistant Professor of Public Policy, Diplomacy and International Political Economy at Qatar University.

Follow him on Twitter: @RemiPiet

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