By Leonid Bershidsky
The uproar surrounding the anti-Islamic film "The Innocence of Muslims," having claimed the life of the U.S. ambassador to Libya, is taking on a different form in Russia: It is testing the government's willingness and ability to censor the Internet.
Back in July, as part of President Vladimir Putin's campaign to intimidate dissenters, the Russian parliament passed a law that liberal activists warned would allow prosecutors to shut down any website the government found disagreeable. Titled “On protecting children from information damaging to their health and development,” and coming into effect on Nov. 1, the law was presented by its creators as an attempt to curb child pornography and ban sites providing suicide instructions. As the law's chief drafter, Yelena Mizulina, told the newspaper Izvestia: “A reputable website has nothing to fear. Only those that systematically aid pedophiles and the corruption of children will suffer.”
Then came the release on YouTube of the offending film, which sparked riots in the Muslim world with its claims that, among other things, the Prophet Muhammed was a pedophile. As radical protestors mobbed U.S. embassies, the Russian airwaves filled with conspiracy theories. “A revolution devours not only its children but its parents and sponsors,” said commentator Mikhail Leontyev on Russian state television. “There is a theory that this film is a product of anti-Obama election technology meant to prove that Obama's policies have failed.”
Russia is not a Muslim country, but Islam is its second most followed religion after Orthodox Christianity. According to the 2002 census, about 10 percent of the nation's population, or about 14.5 million people, belong to traditionally Muslim ethnic groups. These include the Chechens, who for 10 years waged a bloody guerilla war against the Russian army and who almost seceded from the Russian Federation in 1996. Some Internet users in the Chechen Republic joined a three-day boycott of Google and YouTube to protest against The Innocence of Muslims. “We will not allow these devils to insult Muslims,” Chechen leader Ramzan Kadyrov said.
Suddenly, Russia's new Internet law wasn't just about children anymore. On September 17, Senator Ruslan Gattarov that the Prosecutor General act against the film, reasoning that The Innocence of Muslims was “no better than child pornography, only this was directed against Muslims.” The Prosecutor General's Office immediately proclaimed the movie “extremist” and filed suit to ban it. Communications Minister Nikolai Nikiforov tweeted: “This is no joke. Because of this clip, YouTube as a whole could be completely blocked in Russia."
Some Twitter users called on Nikiforov to reconsider. “This is like Pakistan,” wrote user Pavel Senko. “A disgrace." Pakistan shut off its citizens' access to YouTube because of the anti-Islamic film. Eventually, Nikoforov relented, saying that if the Russian court rules The Innocence of Muslims illegal, “YouTube will block the clip for Russian viewers.” The Google service has, in fact, done that for several Muslim countries.
Nikiforov's threat to shut down YouTube shows quite clearly that the loosely formulated law could be used to axe any content and any content provider, even if there is no threat at all to children's “health and development.” In some Russian regions, Internet providers blocked access to YouTube of their own accord, just to be on the safe side. In the Siberian city of Omsk, according to Interfax news service, the local branch of state-owned operator Rostelecom made YouTube unavailable for seven hours until officials explained that it was not yet necessary.
The new law “completely ignores the legal rights and interests of conscientious, law-abiding Internet users,” Internet guru Anton Nosik wrote in his blog. “What I would like to hear from Nikiforov is the answer to a single question: What can he personally do by Nov. 1 so that 70 million Russian Internet users are not deprived of access to YouTube and other hosting services, which can be shut off entirely because of this law?"
All the hubbub might have helped generate traffic for the anti-Islamic film, which made the number one spot on Google Trends' list of “rising searches” in Russia. Not everyone, though, found what they were looking for: One prankster, taking advantage of the lack of decent Russian translations of the offending film, substituted a dubbed version of the 1977 Hollywood film The Message, an epic about the birth of the Islamic faith.
(Leonid Bershidsky, an editor and novelist, is Moscow and Kiev correspondent for World View. Opinions expressed are his own.)
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-0- Sep/19/2012 13:01 GMT