Russian and international media have been abuzz in recent days over a new round of website blockings by the Federal Service for Supervision in the Sphere of Telecom, Information Technologies and Mass Communications (Roskomnadzor). This comes on the heels of changes in the mediascape which have been perceived as setbacks to the liberal media in the country.
Federal Law 398-FZ, which came into force February 1, allows Roskomnadzor to block websites containing extremist material on the instruction of the Prosecutor General’s Office, without a court order. That law was invoked in at least 20 Roskpomnadzor decisions in February and on March 13 in the blocking of Grani.ru, Ej.ru and Kasparov.ru for inciting unauthorized demonstration – apparently rallies in opposition to Russian actions in the Crimea.
At the same time, activist and former Moscow mayoral candidate Andrei Navalny’s LiveJournal page was blocked because he was using it in violation of court-imposed restrictions stemming from the latest corruption charges against him. The website of radio station Ekho Moskvy was blocked briefly by several providers until it removed Navalny’s blog from its pages. LiveJournal.com reported access problems on some providers March 13 as well, according to Digit.ru.
All the websites, including Navalny’s personal blog, continue to operate. The editors of Grani.ru, Ej.ru and Kasparov.ru said they were not told where the offending material was contained on their websites, according to media reports. Roskomnadzor is required by 398-FZ to make that specification. Grani.ru filed suit against Roskomnadzor for its actions in a Moscow district court March 14.
Journalists or “friends of the Kremlin”?
This shrinking of the online public space, which started about two years ago, has seen new developments since the beginning of this year. In January, cable and satellite channel TV Dozhd, one of the few independent voices on Russian television, was subject to a barrage of official criticism for “attempting to rehabilitate Nazism” after conducting an online poll on the Siege of Leningrad during WW2. This led satellite and cable operators to drop the channel, which will also lose the lease on its studios. The subscription-only station began an online fundraising drive March 24.
In February, Gazprom Media, a branch of the state-owned natural gas giant and owner of two-thirds of the stock in Ekho Moskvy, ended its “hands off” policy toward the station by removing, without explanation, the station’s longtime head Yury Fedutinov. He was replaced by Yekaterina Pavlova, a veteran of state-run broadcast journalism. The station’s editor, Alexei Venediktov, is due to renew his contract this week.
On March 12, Galina Timchenko, editor of online news stalwart Lenta.ru, was fired after the outlet received a warning from Roskomnadzor about extremist in content in an interview with Andrei Tarasenko, a leader of the Ukrainian nationalist group Right Sector, published March 10. The interview itself did not contain extremist material, but it provided a hyperlink to it. RBC was prompted to write at the time that “there is not a single major, independent socio-political resource left on the media market [in Russia].”
Lenta.ru is part of a complex media holding that includes LiveJournal, gazeta.ru, Internet portal Rambler, entertainment guide Afisha and other outlets. Timchenko was replaced by Alexei Goreslavsky, an executive of the holding and, in the words of one of his colleagues, a “friend of the Kremlin.”
Roskomnadzor has, for the most part, been faithful to the letter of the law. Vedomosti observed, for example, that the agency is not blocking the website that redirects readers to mirrors of Navalny’s blog in domains outside Russia, since there is nothing illegal in that activity. Nor is information about how to get around the blocks suppressed. Those instructions are readily available on websites in the .ru domain.
A poll published March 19 placed Russia in the lower third of 24 emerging and developing nations according to the value placed on Internet freedom. The U.S. Pew Research Center found that 63% of respondents interviewed between March and May of last year said freedom from government Internet censorship is “important.” That figure was low in comparison with countries having similar rates of Internet penetration. Russia showed the largest age gap in the survey, with 80% of Russians ages 18-29 calling for Internet freedom, compared with 44% of those over 50.