Russian authorities tighten control of all media in run-up to elections

Dec 1st, 2011 | By | Category: Freedom of Speech, Russia

Reporters Without Borders firmly condemns the avalanche of arbitrary censorship measures that Russia’s federal and local authorities have been adopting ahead of the 4 December parliamentary elections and the presidential elections scheduled for 4 March.

They are targeting both the traditional media, which are closely scrutinized, criticized and threatened, and the Internet, now recognized as playing a key role in political debate. Russia has 51 million Internet users, more than any other country in Europe. A quarter of Russians say the Internet is their main source of news (according to the market research company comScore).

Reporters Without Borders has compiled a list of recent freedom of information violations that show that no methods are being spared to bolster Russian strongman Vladimir Putin and promote unanimous acclaim for his decision to run again for the presidency.

 

Censorship of Internet criticism

Prime Minister Putin recently warned western countries against any attempt to meddle in Russia’s elections and the state-run Ria Novostinews agency was allegedly ordered to rid its website of any foreign news reports critical of Putin.

Grigory Okhotin resigned from Inosmi, a Ria Novosti offshoot that translates foreign media articles into Russian and posts them on its website, after receiving an internal email from the head of the Internet department asking all employees “not to post any article hostile to Putin and United Russia on the site” during the week prior to the elections. Okhotin leaked the email on 26 November.

Ria Novosti spokesperson denied Okhotin’s claim on 29 November, pointing out that media censorship violates Russia’s constitution. The news agency is now planning to sue Okhotin for defamation.

LiveJournal, a very popular blog platform that hosts much of the political debate taking place in Russia, was the target of yet another DDoS attack on 28 November. The platform has been the repeated target of such attacks (in which a website is blocked by means of thousands of simultaneous access requests) since the start of the year.


Regional forums targeted

Online regional discussion forums are very popular. In most cases participation is anonymous and Russians like using them to discuss politics. They are a nightmare for the authorities but, as they are less powerful than national media, it is easier to close them down. Of course, that does not stop Russians from continuing their debates on sites hosted abroad. At least three forums have been closed or suspended since the start of November.

On 15 November, police from the western city of Kostroma travelled all the way to Dolgoprudny, to the web-hosting company Agava Hosting, to seize the server of Kostroma Jedis, the region’s most popular forum with 12,000 daily visitors, because of two satirical videos criticizing governor Igor Slyunyayev (http://www.youtube.com/ watch?hl=en&v=lJCg5w9SQYs&gl=US and http://www.youtube.com/watch? feature=player_embedded&v=UWqTwQ1bNDI#!)

As the governor is suing the person who posted the videos for “insulting a state representative” under article 319 of the criminal code, the police said they were conducting a preliminary investigation that would take two weeks and could not return the server before 1 December (three days before the first round of the elections). As a result, Jedis Forum has been down at the height of the election campaign.

Internet users suspect that the defamation suit is just a pretext in order to gain access to the IP addresses of the forum’s members and identify all those who have been criticizing the governor’s policies, which would be a violation of the right to the confidentiality of users’ personal data.

Other forums – for example, in the central region of Arzamas (mcn.nnov.ru) and the southern city of Miass (forum.miass.ru) – were closed or purged of all political content by their administrators during November. Whether as a result of self-censorship or on the orders of local officials, it has narrowed the scope of online political debate in Russia.

 

Newspapers and radio

Surveillance of the traditional media has also been stepped up. The far eastern Sakhalin region’s newspaper Sovetsky Sakhalin has been withdrawn from newsstands. Senior officials allegedly orders vendors not to sell it and threatened to destroy their stands if they disobeyed. Deliveries to the Kuril Islands were stopped on the grounds of financial difficulties and many advertisers have withdrawn their business.

Created in 1925, Sovetsky Sakhalin is the oldest and most popular of the region’s newspapers and is the only local media which is independent and which criticizes the region’s authorities.

There has been a series of resignations from newsrooms as a result of pressure from the authorities. The deputy editor of the Gazeta.ru news portal, Roman Badanin, announced his resignation yesterday because his “coverage of the pre-election period no longer satisfied the management and owners.”

Badanin objected to the withdrawal of an interactive map of election campaign violations displayed in banner form on the site. The result of a partnership with the NGO Golos (Voice), it allowed Internet users to report violations of the electoral process as they witnessed them. Another news portal, Slon, and the weekly The News Times have adopted it. Gazeta.ru’s management said it was removed simply to make space for more advertising in the run-up to the end-of-year holidays.

 

Three members of the management of radio Abakan, radio Ekho Moskvy’s partner in the southern Siberian republic of Khakassia, resigned six days ago after being asked by the owners to change its programme schedule. Two subjects were to have been debated with listeners during the programme “Razvorot” on 24 November – “homosexual propaganda” (the subject of a Saint Petersburg municipal assembly bill) and “Putin’s third presidential term.” Abakan had to drop one of the topics because someone close to the ruling United Russia party asked it “not to mix Putin and homos.”

Russia is ranked 140th out of 178 countries in the latest Reporters Without Borders press freedom index and is classified as a “country under surveillance” in its “Enemies of the Internet” report. As a signatory of the European Convention on Human Rights and member of the Organization for Security and Cooperation in European, Russia is supposed to guarantee media diversity and free speech.

Laws decriminalizing defamation and insulting comments (including online) and reinforcing the penalties for physical attacks on journalists were adopted on 27 November. Reporters Without Borders urges the authorities to fully implement these laws and to demonstrate a determination to respect media freedom and online freedom of information during the coming elections.

 

 

Lucie Morillon
Reporters Sans Frontières – Responsable Bureau Nouveaux Médias
Reporters Without Borders – Head of New Media Desk
internet2@rsf.org
Tel : 01.44.83.84.71
47, rue Vivienne 75002 Paris
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