On the Runet, Old-School Repression Meets New
By Nina Ognianova and Danny O’Brien
Russian President Dmitry Medvedev has often talked about the importance of a free press and free Internet, telling reporters before his election that the Web “guarantees the independence of mass media.” He explicitly tied the two together in his first State of the Union address in November 2008, declaring that “freedom of speech should be backed up by technological innovation” and that no government official “can obstruct discussion on the Internet.”
THE PRESS: 2010
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Even as Medvedev made these statements, others were questioning whether simply permitting the existence of the Internet would allow online journalists to work without state-sponsored interference. In a study from the same year titled, “The Web That Failed,” Floriana Fossato and John Lloyd of the Reuters Institute for the Study of Journalism noted that “an unpleasant feeling of vulnerability is spreading among bloggers and advocacy groups active in the Russian Internet.”
Two years later, the Russian online media is not subjected to direct central government censorship in the style of China’s Great Firewall; ordinary users have not endured the high-tech throttling of traffic employed by Iranian authorities. Nonetheless, that uneasy feeling has continued to grow, Fossato said. “The Russian authorities have made abundantly clear in the last few years that direct censorship is not an option for them,” she told CPJ. But every other tool is being used, she said, “from the opaque wording of extremism legislation to hacking and the control of Internet service providers.”
Even online writers willing to accept these controls, Fossato said, have become alarmed by recent attacks targeting prominent, mainstream bloggers such as Oleg Kashin, who was brutally beaten in October. Yet the violence is not so new, CPJ research shows. Online journalists in Russia and throughout the region–whose work appears on the Russian-language Internet known as the Runet–have faced physical intimidation, attacks, and threats for far longer than has been widely noted in either Moscow or the West.
Throughout the region, authoritarian leaders and their allies have effectively blended the old tactics of repression with newer, subtler forms of censorship. Physical violence threatens Internet journalists in Russia and the former Soviet republics as deeply as it does independent reporters working in other media. Kashin, for example, reported on the same controversial highway project that newspaper editor Mikhail Beketov covered when he, too, was beaten two years earlier. Governments are applying to online media the same restrictive laws that have long controlled traditional media, imposing onerous registration requirements and severe content limits.
Combine those old, well-developed tactics with the targeted use of technological attacks–such as the intermittent but untraceable disabling of independent media websites–and you have a form of Internet control that is elusive and hard to combat. “The invisible hand of the online censors is, I think, more effective than what China is doing. They’ve been very successful in silencing independent voices without attracting international attention,” said Vadim Isakov, a former journalist for Agence France-Presse and contributor to the Global Voices RuNet Echo project, which tracks developments on the Russian Internet. “Nobody knows how far or where this could go.”
In a 2010 report, Ron Deibert and Rafal Rohozinski, principal investigators at OpenNet Initiative, a global academic project that monitors filtering and surveillance, went so far as to describe Internet controls in the Commonwealth of Independent States–the regional organization composed of the former Soviet states–as having evolved “several generations ahead” of those used in other regions of the world. Runet controls are not only mirroring past oppression, the authors said, they’re foreshadowing the future of Internet control worldwide.
The repression of Runet journalism evolved as a simple extension of the controls exerted on traditional news media. In Russia, even though the constitution guarantees freedom of expression and the press, a number of laws have long restricted those rights. Defamation laws and an anti-extremism statute–twice amended to constrict the boundaries of journalism–have now been extended to the authors of Web content. Particularly in the Russian provinces, criminal prosecution of Internet journalists is often coupled with other forms of pressure, including intimidation, assault, and murder.
In August 2009, prosecutors in southern Siberia opened a criminal defamation case against Mikhail Afanasyev, editor of the online magazine Novy Fokus, in retaliation for a commentary challenging the government’s response to a deadly explosion at a hydroelectric plant. The indictment said the journalist had “knowingly distributed false information that slandered the honor, dignity, and business reputation of the regional authorities and plant management.” Authorities dropped the charges under international pressure, but a month later unknown assailants beat Afanasyev, leaving him with a broken jaw and head injuries.
The editor of the North Caucasus news website Ingushetiya, Roza Malsagova, was forced into exile in August 2008 after being criminally charged with “extremist activity” and then threatened, harassed, and beaten. The publisher, Magomed Yevloyev, was fatally shot while in police custody the same month; one person was prosecuted on a relatively minor charge of negligent homicide despite evidence that the killing was premeditated and politically motivated. A Moscow court ordered the site’s closure on “extremism” charges, but the staff has continued to operate the site via a U.S.-hosted service.
Throughout the region, new media are frequently forced to endure the same bureaucratic and restrictive registration requirements that beset their predecessors. Article 2 of Russia’s Law on Mass Media, for instance, was expanded so that restrictions on traditional media were imposed on registered websites as well. Although websites are not obligated to register, many online journalists feel compelled to do so in order to undertake basic reportorial tasks such as attending press conferences, covering political events, and interviewing official sources.
Elsewhere in the region, mandatory media registration has become a powerful weapon of control, effectively outlawing individual voices online unless they comply with draconian registration requirements–impositions that are even more disproportionate when applied to individual bloggers with few resources or to those exchanging opinions with a small audience on social networking sites.
In 2009, Kazakhstan passed restrictive legislation equating all Internet sites–including personal blogs, chat rooms, and social networking sites–with traditional media. Those regulations criminalize defamation and allow for the seizure of editorial material, the blocking of broadcasts, and the suspension or closure of media outlets. Internet users wishing to remain within the law found themselves in the position of either remaining passive consumers or jumping through all the registration hoops intended for major newspapers just to start their own blogs.
Journalists describe the law as a ticking bomb that will go off at politically sensitive times such as elections. The government, for example, has already announced that it is compiling “blacklists” of “destructive” websites. Tamara Kaleyeva, president of the local press freedom group Adil Soz, told CPJ that she tried without success to get an official explanation as to what constituted a “destructive” site. The penalties awaiting such sites are also unspecified.
Kazakhstan’s attempts to expand media control to the Internet mimic those of Belarus, where President Aleksandr Lukashenko signed legislation equating all Internet content with traditional news media. In February, Lukashenko signed a decree that gave government agencies wide-ranging authority to block access to online information they deem extremist. The decree required all providers to register servers, personal computers, and other “devices used to connect to the Internet,” and to collect the personal details of Web surfers.
As in Kazakhstan, Belarus established a new Internet regulator, the Operational Analytical Center. Reporting directly to the president, the center has a mandate to monitor the online correspondences and activities of Belarusian citizens, including their browsing history, ostensibly to “protect information containing state secrets” from “leaking through technical channels,” the independent news website Charter 97 reported. Authorities did not specify what type of information would be considered a “state secret.”
Even with such wide-ranging legal powers, Eurasian nations are using extra-legal censorship techniques–notably the targeted and largely non-attributable sabotage of website connectivity.
Event-specific blocking of selected Internet sources has become a common tool for most Eurasian nations. Over the past four years, CPJ has documented such blocking in Kyrgyzstan, Georgia, Armenia, Russia, Belarus, Azerbaijan, and Kazakhstan. These blocks are temporary and triggered by sensitive events such as elections or ethnic conflict, or by the appearance of critical online reporting that is considered embarrassing to a particular government official.
In these cases, OpenNet analyst Rohozinski explained, official fingerprints are hard to conclusively identify. “Event-specific blocking is meant to make sites seem like they are simply unavailable or subject to technical faults,” he said. When opposition sites went down in Belarus and Kyrgyzstan, he noted, OpenNet had to first invest considerable effort to eliminate benign infrastructure failures.
Journalists have found ways of circumventing censorship. After years of official suppression of their print version, staffers at Kazakhstan’s Respublika newspaper moved much of their material onto the Web in 2008. Still, the troubles continued. “We started placing more and more content online, but our website only functioned normally for a couple of months,” multimedia editor Anastasiya Novikova told CPJ. First, the website was periodically disabled by denial-of-service, or DOS, attacks. (A DOS attack prevents a website from functioning normally by overloading its host server with external communications requests, the volume of which the server is unable to handle.) Then the website became inaccessible in Kazakhstan. The country’s main Internet provider, Kazakhtelecom, did not respond to CPJ’s requests for an explanation; the government claimed it had nothing to do with the blocking.
Respublika staff fought back, using proxy servers and alternative Web addresses, uploading content on unblocked social networking sites such as Facebook and Twitter, and sending e-mails and brochures to readers to direct them to the publication’s content. But Respublika‘s proactive response requires that its readers have the patience and knowledge to circumvent the technical blocks in their way. In October, Harvard’s Berkman Center for Internet & Society estimated that circumvention tools are employed by fewer than 3 percent of Internet users worldwide, even in countries that practice pervasive blocking. In order to break the blockade, sites like Respublika need a substantial change in attitude, both at home and abroad.
Recognizing this, Respublika took the lead in forming a new advocacy group, For Free Internet, which is trying to combat Kazakhstan’s plans for Internet controls. In May, representatives of the group filed dozens of claims in local courts demanding that the Ministry of Information ensure unrestricted Internet access. By September, the courts had dismissed all of the claims. The ministry’s defense was simple. It said it does not “have the right to demand from Internet providers that they give access to one or another source,” Adil Soz reported. Much as it did when Respublika‘s site went dark, the government seemed to shrug and pass responsibility to a third party–one that was sure to do its bidding.
Similarly, regional lawmakers have tried to present their approach to the Internet as “hands-off.” Internet journalists have only to follow existing news media rules, after all, such as laws on defamation, extremism, and registration. But in a politicized environment, such laws are applied arbitrarily; behind the scenes, the online press suffers from illegal attacks that occur with impunity. Sites such as Respublika are not explicitly censored by the state; instead, they suffer from intermittent and untraceable denial-of-service attacks, or a decision made by an Internet service provider ostensibly independent of the government. Accidents befall Web servers, just as mysterious, unsolved crimes of violence silence the region’s online journalists.
While blunter strategies catch the eye of Western governments and media, Runet crackdowns attract far less attention. Thousands of news articles in 2010 traced crackdowns in Iran and China, but Google News recorded fewer than 80 stories on Runet censorship. Given CPJ research showing ongoing violence against online reporters, intimidation of Web journals, and technological attacks on independent websites, the dearth of news on Runet censorship shows not the absence of repression but its insidious effectiveness. Without international attention and condemnation, these dangerous tactics are likely to become entrenched in the region and to spread elsewhere in the world.
Nina Ognianova is CPJ’s Europe and Central Asia program coordinator. She led CPJ missions to Russia and Kazakhstan in 2010. Danny O’Brien is CPJ’s San Francisco-based Internet advocacy coordinator.