The fifth column, dissidents and a shrinking internet

The Russian president Vladimir Putin recently stated that internet was actually created by the CIA and that Russia needed to build its own internet. It is obvious that the battle for freedom of speech in Russia and other countries is being increasingly fought on the internet. But what do you do in a social climate where the term “fifth column” is used to describe dissidents, asks Oksana Chelysheva, Russian journalist and dissident.

May 6 2014 Text: Oksana Chelysheva

February 1, 2014 is the date when the amendments to the Russian Law on Information and Information Technologies came into force. It is referred to as Andrey Lugovoy Law as it is this Russian Duma deputy and the main suspect of Alexander Litvinenko’s murder proposed further restrictions. According to the its new version, the Federal Service for Supervision of Communications, Information Technology and Mass Media (Roskomnadzor) has all rights to block any internet page without getting a court order if they publish an article containing “calls for extremism and mass disorders”. The amended law stipulates that the access to such web pages is to be denied immediately.

The new law pressure was first felt on March 13, 2014. Just in one day several media outlets were banned on special order from Russian Prosecutor’s Office. Roskomnadzor referred to numerous publications with Grani.ru, Kasparov.ru, ej.ru as being extremist in their content. The access to the webpage of Echo of Moscow radio was also banned on the grounds that there were publications by anti-corruption blogger Alexey Navalny on the webpage. Navalny has been under house arrest with additional ban to use internet being imposed on him after the court had ruled his violation of terms of suspended sentence from the previous case about the theft of timber worth 450,000 USD in 2009.

Later the same day, on March 13, Roskomnadzor re-established access to the Echo of Moscow. To get it back, the Echo of Moscow had to remove Navalny’s publication from the webpage.

According to the information provided by bfm.ru webpage, 23 Russians are now able to personally block any webpage. These are Prosecutor General, his deputies and heads of prosecutor's offices in Russia’s federal circuits. They all have personal keys to a special webpage through which they can block access to any webpage.

Just the day before, on March 12, Lenta.ru webpage, internet media outlet with 11 million users, had its editor-in-chief Galina Timchenko fired. It resulted in tremendous uproar of the staff, both journalist and technical as Galina Timchenko had run the outlet since it was established. Most of the personnel left in solidarity with their editor-in-chief. Ilya Azar, a journalist whose article published on March 10 was used as a catalyst for the process, was also among those who retired as a journalist of this outlet. The article in question was Azar’s interview with Andrey Tarasenko, one of the leading people with Ukraine’s Right Sector ultra-nationalist movement. It is worth noting that it was not even the interview as such which was told to be extremist. The problem was cross-reference to another publication by two different webpages some years before that. It was the interview of Dmitro Yarosh, the leader of the Right Sector, entitled “Sooner or later but we are doomed to fight against Moscow empire.”

In one of the Facebook discussions of the situation with Lenta.ru, there appeared a comment, “What else to expect in the war time…” The crisis with Ukraine has been actually used by the Kremlin as a weighty unanswerable reason to crash the remains of freedom of expression in Russia. The notion of the “fifth column” has become a common talk reality.

Thus, on April 11, the outside of Moscow grand bookshop in Novy Arbat avenue, Dom Knigi, was adorned with a huge banner showing black-and-white faces of three opposition politicians and two rock musicians who were dissidents of the Soviet time. “Fifth Column. Aliens among us”, it said. On both sides of the banner there were images of hostile-looking creepy creatures holding business suitcases marked with a white ribbon which became a symbol of protest rallies which have been developing in Moscow since December 2011. Another dissident musician of the Soviet time, Viktor Tsoy, is being targeted post-mortem with wild accusations of being “a CIA agent whose songs were developed in Hollywood”. It is not what Russian tabloids state. These are startling revelations by Yevgeniy Fyodorov, a Russian parliamentarian and the head of the State Duma Committee on Economic Policy and Entrepreneurship.

The process of imposing further restrictions on the internet is still developing. Now the turn has come for bloggers. The most popular blogs can be placed on the same legal footing as media outlets. The respective law bill is to be considered by State Duma after it was submitted by several deputies from Zhirinovskiy’s Liberal Democratic Party, including the same Andrey Lugovoy, the main suspect in Litvinenko’s case. If it is approved, all bloggers who have 3,000 visitors a day would be obliged to comply with the same laws which regulate operations of Russian media outlets. Vadim Dengin, one of the co-authors of the new restrictive law, told the Kommersant newspaper, “It is becoming more frequent that the “fifth column” is actively advancing. Apart from bloggers whose writings are not in breach of the law, there is their overwhelming majority who are connected with anything starting from cybercrimes to extremism and terrorism … All under the cover-up of “freedom of expression”

This atmosphere can’t but lead to further curtailing of freedom of media. There has been no need to establish a special censorship authority in Russia. The authorities have created a lot more efficient way to control journalists. This is fear which is used instead of a censor. Russian journalists see their colleagues going behind bars as it happened to Sergey Reznik, an investigative journalist from Rostov-on-Don. Sergey Reznik was jailed to 18 months on the charges of insulting a local judge in his blog. The same court declared Reznik's claims that he and his family had been received threatening phone calls a false complaint and agreed with prosecutors that he had arranged the calls himself.

Russian journalists get fired, especially in the midst of the Ukrainian row, as it happened to Alexander Erenko in Perm in Vologodsk. A journalist with a local media outlet, Erenko reposted an almost innocent comment in March this year on his Facebook wall. He quoted another Facebook user, Roman Romanenko from Vologda, who had ironically asked President Putin to also occupy his region “in order to protect the Russian-speaking people living there.” Erenko was fired within one hour after posting that status, reported Echo of Perm, a local office of the Echo of Moscow.

These are all conditions for a lot stricter self-censorship and silencing some de-facto “tabooed” topics. Those bloggers who run their own blogs with officially registered media outlets have to adjust their views to strict demands of editors. Thus, Alexey Venediktov, the Echo of Moscow chief editor, had to give explanations why several bloggers with the radio webpage were denied publications of their articles. In all cases it was connected with the refusal of the authors to edit their texts and remove questionable parts.

The Echo of Moscow radio has raised problems that the Russian blogosphere is experiencing now in a number of programs. Evelina Gevorkyan asked her listeners once in a program “Blog-Out” if they were running their blogs freely or having concerns of possible negative attention from law-enforcement agencies to the content of their blogs. 43.5% of those who answered the question live happened to be apprehensive of possible consequences to their writings. 57% of respondents stated they were still indifferent to possible dangers. It was the feelings for April 10, 2014. We have to wait in order to see if the correlation remains the same within the next fortnight.