Medvedev, endangered sheep, and online controls

Russian President Dmitry Medvedev has tried to create an image apart from his mentor Vladimir Putin. Medvedev claims to support civil liberties, vows to combat corruption, and likes to speak about press freedom. In his first State of the Nation address last fall, Medvedev said the Internet was a guarantor of press freedom in Russia. 

In the address Medvedev said “freedom of speech should be backed up by technological innovation,” that Russians “should work more actively to expand the free Internet and digital television space,” and that nobody in the government “can obstruct discussion on the Internet or censor thousands of channels at once.”

Last October, he opened a video blog and posted five messages in which he talks about global politics, financial woes, his first State of the Nation address, a trip to Latin America, and sports and recreation in Russia. To illustrate accessibility to the people, he opened the blog for public comments on Monday.

And that proved to be a difficult test for the president and his team.

On Wednesday, the Russian news Web site Gazeta reported that Kremlin moderators did not allow comments on the recent helicopter crash in the Altai region of southern Siberia to be posted to Medvedev’s blog. The crash took place on January 9 and claimed seven lives, including the president’s envoy to the State Duma, Aleksander Kosopkin. According to local press reports, authorities suggested fuel problems and pilot error could be potential causes of the crash. Regional news agencies alleged that the high-ranking officials’ decision to hunt argali–an endangered species of wild sheep–from the helicopter had led to the accident.

The local news agency Altapress published an image from the crash site with bodies of dead argali next to helicopter parts, Gazeta reported. The images infuriated local environmental activists, including the Russian chapter of the World Wildlife Fund, and prompted Internet users to seek an explanation from Medvedev on his blog, Gazeta reported, citing active conversations in the blogosphere. Since hunting is a type of recreation, bloggers said they were trying to post their questions on the incident under Medvedev’s last video post.

But in the first two days, moderators posted none of the helicopter-related comments, Gazeta said. (CPJ confirmed the absence of comments on Wednesday evening.) Gazeta tested the president’s blog further: Staffers tried to post a comment about the helicopter crash and another innocuous comment (about how often Russian ministers take part in sporting activities). Only the sporting comment made it on to Medvedev’s blog.

Confronted with the apparent blocking, IT guys in the Kremlin told Gazeta that it was a technical failure.

By Friday, at least 16 questions were posted about the helicopter crash. Maybe Kremlin moderators finally took a cue from the president’s promise to “work more actively to expand the free Internet.”