The Internet has been called the last refuge of free speech in Russia, but now two bloggers are in court and "hate blogging" is rife
In the wake of two court cases against Russian bloggers, the country's Internet community and human rights advocates are complaining about the increased attention of security forces towards the Internet and accusing the authorities of fostering a climate of fear and intimidation.
Media professionals often describe democracy in modern Russia as "electronic" and "hypothetical," with the free exchange of opinion now restricted to the Internet, the last remaining censorship-free refuge in the country. Now they warn that even this last resort is under threat.
BLOGGERS ON TRIAL
In what has been called Russia's first "hate blogging" case, a 21-year-old musician faces trial for inciting hatred towards a social group. In February, Savva Terentyev, a resident of Syktyvkar, the capital of the Komi Republic, left a harsh opinion about the police on a friend's blog on the popular LiveJournal website. Terentyev was immediately summoned to the local prosecutor's office and is now facing up to four years in prison if convicted for using such language as "the cops and scum are the same thing" and suggesting that the "infidel police officers be burnt alive."
The Russian criminal code makes it a crime to distribute information inciting national, racial, social, or religious hatred through the mass media. A date for Terentyev's trial has not been set.
In April, the Moscow prosecutor's office launched a criminal case against Timofei Shevyakov, who under the blogging name Tarlith allegedly used obscene language aimed at State Duma lawmaker Viktor Alksnis in a comment on Alksnis's own LiveJournal blog. Tarlith's supporters insist that all opinions and phrasings, however harsh or offensive, should be allowed in people's private blogs and forums, where people often communicate using nicknames to protect their real identity, and it is the task of the site moderators, rather than the prosecutor's office, to filter or remove them.
Alksnis, in turn, claims to be against introducing censorship to the Internet. But the conservative nationalist lawmaker campaigns for self-censorship instead.
"I am convinced that if the Internet users themselves do not end this mess, especially if we do not restrict our speech to filter obscenities, then the state, sooner or later, will do it for us," Alksnis wrote in his blog. "And if the authorities do intervene, then we will all get what is coming to us and we will never see the end of it."
Boris Vishnevsky, a political analyst and member of the St. Petersburg branch of the liberal Yabloko party, thinks that blogs are trusted more than propaganda and advertisements around the globe, but it is only repressive regimes that busy themselves developing responses to the challenge.
"Russia has become a police state; it is no coincidence that the Terentyev case involves the police," Vishnevsky said. "This spring, Russia made international headlines for the horrendous police violence against the public who took to the streets in Moscow, St. Petersburg, and Nizhny Novgorod to participate in the Dissenters' Marches. The authorities feel they need to justify the tough stance the police took against the protesters. They need to prove there is an unfair image of the police in Russia, that many people are willing to clash with the police, and the Terentyev case serves that purpose well."
Prosecutors in Moscow and St. Petersburg are looking into more than 50 cases of alleged excessive police violence against the "dissenters' march" protesters. Yabloko party lawyer Olga Pokrovskaya said photos and video recorded during the demonstrations and distributed via Internet forums have helped to spread the news about the violations and encouraged more people to file suits.
Yury Korgunyuk of the Moscow-based democracy and governance think tank INDEM, said the blogger cases illustrate, once again, how selective justice is in Russia. "Justice is used against a carefully chosen target," he said. "The charges brought against the two bloggers are absurd and groundless. First of all, the police are not a social group, and secondly, Terentyev was not campaigning against the police but talking to a friend through his blog."
Terentyev's and Shevyakov's are not isolated cases.
In 2006, the authorities in Ivanovo region in central Russia forced the website www.cursiv.ru to close for several months after its editor, journalist Vladimir Rakhmankov, published a satirical article calling President Vladimir Putin the nation's phallic symbol. The article was about the government's attempts to increase the birthrate. Rakhmankov was also ordered to pay 24,000 rubles in damages for "insulting the president."
And on 23 May, the Novosibirsk regional court ordered four websites shut down for distributing extremist materials.
The number of Internet users in Russia has skyrocketed from an estimated 6 million in 2000 to 28 million today, and that number could nearly double by 2010 according to the Communications Ministry.
The Russian site of LiveJournal has 400,000 registered users, while the site's readership amounts to nearly 10 million people, said Anton Nosik, one of the site's most popular Russian bloggers. Russia holds second place after the United States in the number of users on the blog-hosting portal.
Ruslan Linkov, head of the liberal organization Democratic Russia and also a LiveJournal blogger, said Internet spies on the lookout for potential victims are becoming abundant. LiveJournal is getting permeated with false blogs created by "spies," he said.
"False blogs are easy to spot," Linkov said. "They are lifeless; these blogs typically have barely any content at all. The scarce content that is there is mostly blatantly provocative in character, with the aim of encouraging other bloggers to expose their views."
Linkov knows that his blog, which he uses to publicize reported cases of abuse of human rights as well as to share personal stories, is being closely monitored by law enforcement.
"The police or security agents call me every now and then to express their indignation at my opinions, or the stories that I tell," he said. "Sometimes they ask me to clarify a fact or detail about the cases of human rights abuses I am describing.
"This attention is both sickening and funny: once, when I was vacationing in France, an army general was heard describing my holiday adventures to a friend," Linkov said.
"My colleagues who work on websites representing the liberal opposition have also noticed the massive presence of spies and provocateurs in their blogs," he said. "And during telephone conversations the police and security agents make no secret of their interest. At the same time, nationalist websites flourish and do not seem to get in trouble."
260 NEW BLOGS EVERY HOUR
More and more people are turning to blogs and Internet forums when seeking reliable information. According to Technorati, a site that tracks blog traffic, 2 million Russian blogs already exist online, and this year 260 new blogs are being added every hour 6,000 every day compared to 100 per hour in the autumn of 2006.
Nearing the December 2007 parliamentary elections and March 2008 presidential elections, the importance of control over the media is growing.
Former chess champion Garry Kasparov, one of the leaders of opposition coalition The Other Russia, says Putin's high approval rating among the public is based on the level of ignorance that most Russians have about the way their country is governed, and that media censorship plays a key role in protecting the authorities.
"One month of honest television debates discussing the true state of corruption in the country, and the concentration of financial resources in the hands of the closest relatives of members of the ruling political elite, would result in the immediate collapse of Putin's approval rating," Kasparov told a news conference in April. "The fast-expanding Internet is dangerous for the authorities as it effectively spreads the word about the level of corruption in Russia, especially in the provinces."
Mario Corti, former head of the Russian service of Radio Liberty and now a consultant for the Baltic Media Group in Russia, said that laws that restrict freedom of speech, including hate speech, exist in many democratic countries and it would be unfair to single out Russia in this particular case.
It is generally in undemocratic states, however, that people go to jail for online commentary. According to a survey by the international press-freedom advocate Reporters Without Borders, 52 people are currently in jail in China for posting critical comments against the authorities on the Internet. Internet users have also been imprisoned for putting controversial content online in Iran, Libya, Syria, Tunisia, and Vietnam, and a Belarusian former parliamentarian, Andrei Klimau, was arrested in April for allegedly calling for the overthrow of the government online.
Corti regards the prosecutor's office reaction to the Terentyev case as disproportionate, wasteful, and petty. "We are talking about a powerful organization promoting a case against an impulsive young person," he said. "There are a great number of serious criminal cases that remain unsolved. And I would certainly like to see more representatives of the law enforcement agencies prosecuted and punished when they commit abuses."