In Russia, Internet censorship ‘on a whim’

New York, June 26, 2013–Prosecution and court authorities in the central Russian city of Ulyanovsk should act immediately to rescind an order that blocks public access to an independent news site, among several others, in a case notably lacking in evidence, legal basis, and fair play, the Committee to Protect Journalists said today.

“It’s censorship based on a whim,” CPJ Europe and Central Asia Program Coordinator Nina Ognianova said.

The state-owned Internet provider Rostelecom, which holds a virtual monopoly in and around Ulyanovsk, blocked access to several websites, including the independent news website Gazeta, last week, according to news reports. The exact date of the blocking is not clear because none of the websites were told of the ban at the time. The court ruling, which was issued on May 23 and subsequently reviewed by CPJ, lists only URLs to the websites. CPJ’s review of the linked sites showed that some involve employment listings. It is not immediately clear why they would have been targeted. Three other regional websites, which publish news and entertainment, also appear to be among the blocked sites.

Rostelecom representatives told Gazeta that it had blocked the websites in response to an order issued by the Leninsky District Court in late May. The court order stemmed from a regional prosecutor’s complaint that had accused the websites of propagating corruption by publishing articles with instructions on how to bribe civil servants and avoid punishment for committing crimes. The prosecutor’s office said it had filed the claim against the websites on its own initiative and not because of complaints by local residents, local press reported.

In the ruling, the court did not clearly state what specific laws the websites had allegedly violated, and did not name the articles that allegedly “contained information on the ways to give bribes, circumstances when it is necessary to offer a bribe, as well as the ways to avoid criminal responsibility for the committed criminal action.”

Aleksandr Barinov, a journalist with Gazeta, told CPJ that the staff was not aware of what articles could have led to the blocking. CPJ research shows that in February 2009, the news website published a letter sent by a reader called “I can teach you how to give bribes,” which detailed a first-person account of Russian officials encouraging her to bribe them in exchange for their services.

Gazeta reported that it was not notified of the court hearings against it and was, therefore, not present in court when the ruling was issued. Gazeta said on Tuesday that it had learned of its blocking in Ulyanovsk from local residents, who called to say they could not access the site. Gazeta said it was considering appealing the ruling.

Another news website that was blocked has since been restored. Komsomolskaya Pravda, a pro-government news website, reported on Wednesday that Rostelecom had restored access to its site. The site suggested that prosecutors had blocked their website because of a 2002 satirical article, called “Test: are you accepting bribes?” It is unclear if Komsomolskaya Pravda obtained an unblocking order from the court.

“How could authorities approve this order without any apparent legal basis or evidence, and without even bothering to notify the defendant? It shows how easily Internet censorship can be imposed,” Ognianova said. “We call on the Ulyanovsk prosecutor’s office to retract its claim against Gazeta, the Leninsky District Court to reverse its decision, and Rostelecom to restore access to the website.”

  • For more data and analysis, visit CPJ’s Russia page.