Russia vs. Blogging
Arresting bloggers can be added to the long list of the Kremlin's encroachments on human rights, writes Kim Zigfeld. So much for free speech in Russia.
March 20, 2008 - 12:00 am
It looks like the beginning of the end for Russia’s celebrated blogosphere.
On February 15, 2007, a 21-year-old Russian artist and blogger named Savva Terentyev (pictured above) located in the northern Russian city of Syktyvkar posted a comment on the blog of a local journalist named Boris Suranov. Suranov’s post dealt with a raid by local police officers on a local opposition newspaper called Iskra (“the spark”), a raid which Suranov believed was politically motivated and illegal. As such, the raid would have been part of a pattern of such attacks on independent media by the Vladimir Putin’s Kremlin, a pattern that had been underway since Putin first took office.
Here is what Terentyev wrote about these stormtroopers (remember, this is just a comment on a relatively obscure blog operated by a credentialed journalist):
I hate son-of-a-bitch cops.
I don’t agree with the thesis that “policemen have retained the mindset of being a repressive cudgel in the hands of those in power.” First, that it’s the cops who have retained it. Secondly, it’s not that it has been retained, but more simply that it has not been purged. It is garbage – and in Africa it is garbage – who become cops. The people who become cops are herd animals, rabble – the stupidest, most ignorant representatives of the living world. It would be great if in the in the center of every city in Russia, on the main square (in Syktyvkar, right in the center of Stefanovskaya Square, where the Christmas tree stands – so that everyone could see it) there stood an oven, like in Auschwitz, where ceremonially, every year – or better, twice a day (at noon and midnight, for example) – they incinerated a bad cop. The people would burn him. That would be a first step in cleansing society of cop-rabble trash.
Suranov replied to the comment sarcastically: “It could be a sort of carnival.” Suvorov is not somehow an obsessed anti-establishment fanatic, which is clear from his avatar: It’s a picture of a well-known female anti-Kremlin dissident doctored with frog-like bugeyes; it’s animated, and shows her tongue popping out to grab a fly that has alighted between her eyes. In other words, he’s an equal opportunity critic.
On August 13, 2007, Terentyev was arrested and charged with the crime of “hate speech” and the text was deleted from the blog. He was ordered not to leave the city. Shortly after the arrest, it was reported that “Terentyev’s blog, which focuses mostly on his music listening habits, contained hundreds of messages of support and outrage over the case from other livejournal.com users.” Anton Nosik, the most powerful figure in Russia’s blogosphere and director of livejournal.com’s chief administrator in Russia, was reported to have told the Russian newspaper Kommersant (“the Merchant”) that the case was “absurd.” Nosik stated: “The ignorance of local judges often plays a role in the outcome of cases connected to the internet. I hope that with many journalists present, the judge will look at the essence of the case and not simply hand down a guilty verdict.” Nosik later said: “The people who launched the criminal case are trying in this way to portray police-turned-crooks as a social group that enjoys protection from Russian legislation. It seems to me that it ought be us who are protected by the law, not crooks.”
Within a few months, it was being reported that the Live Journal hosting service itself was under attack in a hostile takeover by Kremlin-friendly businessmen, similar what had already been seen at Russia’s major television stations and newspapers.
And now last Wednesday, the Associated Press has reported that the authorities have concluded their investigation formally filed serious criminal charges against Terentyev, charges that could result in a $12,000 fine being levied against the blogger. In a country where the average wage is $4 per hour, that amounts to a penalty of 18 months’ wages. If Terentyev is unable to pay the fine, he’ll be sentenced to labor. On top of that, he could get up to two years in prison. The AP quoted Galina Kozhevnikova of Russia’s SOVA Center, leading human rights group, saying: “To prosecute a person for a private commentary written on a not-very- popular blog that no one takes seriously in any way whatsoever — this is clearly an abuse of the law and discredit to the law. This is clearly a signal to the blogosphere, which in Russia people now read like the free press, for real information.”
Simultaneously, the Kremlin announced a sweeping new package of legislation aimed apparently at squeezing the last vestige of life out of Russia’s Internet. Radio Free Europe reports: “One new bill proposes tighter state control over Russian online news sites. Another restricts foreign ownership of Internet service providers (ISPs). And a new government decree compels ISPs to allow the authorities to read their clients’ e-mails.”
The consequences could be dire indeed. For instance, RFE reported that the Kremlin has shut down St. Petersburg’s European University (“renowned as one of the country’s top universities”) after the school dared to offer a program electoral civics, accepting a $1 million EU grant to run a project aimed at improving monitoring of Russian elections, and stated: “The Internet has been instrumental in bringing the university’s troubles out into the open. Russian national television channels, all of which are state-controlled, have largely snubbed the issue.” Students and alumni are trying to turn to the one means of expressing themselves that is still available, even as the Kremlin moves to shut that down as well.
The Russian crackdown on bloggers comes just as U.S. State Department has issued a lengthy formal review of the human rights picture in Russia, finding that “government pressure continued to weaken freedom of expression and media independence, particularly of the major television networks.”
Kim Zigfeld is a New York City-based writer who blogs at the PJ Media Network blog Publius Pundit and publishes her own Russia specialty blog, La Russophobe. She also writes for Russia! magazine and is researching a book on the rise of dictatorship in Putin’s Russia.