By Mariya Yefremova

On World Press Freedom Day this year, I thought of Russia. I handed in my Master thesis in October on freedom of expression in Russia. I focused on the control of the Russian government over television and print media, repression of LGBTQ speech, the demonization of the opposition following the 2011 election protests and Bolotnaya Square, as well as the disintegration of the divide between religion and state. I knew there would be further freedom of expression limitations, but I did not think they would shift heavily towards the internet. However, in just a few months, Russia has begun following in China’s steps by placing restrictions on the largest source of information we have available to us today.

Since I handed in my thesis, a new law has been put forth by State Duma deputies Alexei Mitrofanov, Andrei Lugovoi and Vadim Dengin defining those internet users with over 3,000 visitors on their sites as ‘bloggers’, mandating them to register on the site of the Federal Mass Media Inspection Service, Roskomnadzor, which the government uses to monitor media. This has been dubbed the so-called ‘Internet Blacklist’. An Internet ‘Whitelist’ has also been proposed in various parts of Russia, which would mean a list of 20 or so sites which would be allowed and all the rest would be banned.  As of today, Roskomnadzor blocks access to 2,132 registered websites.  However, about 56,000 more are blocked because they share an IP address with one registered on the ‘Blacklist’.  Under the law, blogs will have to regulate content on the same playing field as major media outlets. What is deemed as extremism, pornography, electoral propaganda, information about citizens’ private lives, and language that is deemed obscene, will not be allowed on these outlets. This goes hand in hand with another new law fining what is deemed as ‘foul language’ in art and in public spaces with a fine of 2, 500 roubles.

Social networking sites as well as personal websites are affected by these new regulations. Bloggers will need to fact-check all the information posted on their sites, including even the comments. Individuals would be fined 10,000 to 30,000 roubles for noncompliance and ‘legal persons’ 50,000-300,000 roubles.  Repeat offenses will carry a fine of 30,000-50,000 roubles for individuals and from 300,000-500,000 roubles for legal persons, as well as the possibility of shutting down the site altogether. These ‘bloggers’ would also need to reveal their first and last names and contact details on their sites or pages. Failure to do so would result in the Roskomnadzor reporting them to the authorities. In addition, in a new Orwellsian twist, blogs, phone applications, social networks like Facebook, and companies like Google (which owns YouTube) and Microsoft (which owns Skype), will be required to keep user data for six months. This has created an atmosphere of fear and self-censorship, as bloggers don’t have the means to regulate content nor pay the fees associated with violation.

The blocking of websites without the necessary court ruling to do so is in clear violation of the European Convention. Similarly, the Roskomnadzor regulation is a clear violation of Article 29 of the Russian Constitution, which grants everyone the right and freedom to seek, send, receive, generate and disseminate information by lawful means. The State Duma Deputy Sergei Zheleznyak has publicly stated that “Roskomnadzor stands at the forefront of the information war that was unleashed against our country and our values”. The fact that the state currently sees itself mired in an information war is deeply troubling, as they are pulling all the propaganda stops in their war, and winning battle after battle.

On April 24, 2014  President Vladimir Putin revealed his ‘information war’ by stating that the internet was created as a ‘CIA project’. The statement did not come as a large revelation into Putin’s strategizing as so many laws, bills, and statements were released targeting online communication. Putin has also accused the creators of Russian search engine, Yandex, which has been able to achieve greater traffic in Russia than Google, of being foreign agents, stating that “they had to have a certain number of Americans and a certain number of Europeans in their governing bodies, and they had to agree with that”. After Putin’s statement, Yandex lost five percent of its shares.

In addition to being placed under house arrest, opposition leader and former candidate for Moscow Mayor Alexei Navalny has been found guilty of slander in the Moscow Babushkinsky District Court after Moscow City Duma Deputy Aleksei Lisovenko filed a lawsuit following a tweet by Navalny referring to Lisovenko as a “drug addict”. Navalny’s website, was also shut down, dealing a great blow to online activism, as Navalny was a creator of RosPil, which monitored state corruption and sent legal complaints to the necessary regulatory body. Navalny was also creator of RosYama, or RusHole, a website which generated legal letter letters to traffic police who had to respond within 37 to the necessary road repair requests which were posted to the site. Similarly, Navalny created RosZhKKh, or RosHousing, on which residents would input their address and a complaint would be generated to the correlated housing agency.  Such online activism has posed consistent threats to the status quo and the charges against Navalny send a message that this citizen-based activism will not be able to continue.

Furthermore, Pavel Durov, the ‘Russian Mark Zuckerberg’ received the clear message that loyalty to the government is key to success in Russia today. Durov, who began Vkontakte in 2006, was forced to sell his shares of Vkontake to Putin’s loyalists and basically pressured into exile. As a response, Russians began joking that Vkontake, ‘In Contact’ should rather be renamed “In Censorship’. editor Galina Timchenko was also fired and replaced by someone seen as more pro-government, creating a chain reaction in which many other members of the editorial staff quit in reaction to her dismissal.

There are still outlets like Telekonal Dozhd, Radio Svoboda, Vedomosti, the Moscow Times, and Echo Moskvi reporting on freedom of expression violations and organizations like the Glasnost Defence Foundation, Foundation for Investigative Journalism, the Digital Defenders Project, Sakharov Center, the School for Bloggers, and PEN Russia defending freedom of expression in Russia, but the voices are silenced more and more, especially with the foreign agent law which has caused several NGOs to cease operations, and a thousand forced to halt operations as they are inspected. Golos, or ‘Voice’, an election-monitoring organization was one of the most prominent.

As Tonia Samsonova, a correspondent for Echo Moskvi and Telekonal Dozhd told Index, “every time we wonder, is it possible to have more propaganda and more pressure, but then it turns out it is possible… I think there is a lot of room for making things worse for internet freedom in Russia”. As RIA Novosti and Voice of Russia Radio have been shut down and as Dozhd is hanging on by a thread after being dropped by cable providers for creating a controversial poll about World War II, there has been a great chilling effect on freedom of expression in Russia. The Internet is one of the greatest spaces left in Russia for freedom expression and with these measures, this space is becoming smaller and tighter. The Russian Human Rights Council and the Russian Human Rights Ombudsman have spoken out against the newest measures, saying the surest positive outcome is that Russians will create innovative ways to get around internet regulations, however the future benefits do not outweigh the current costs. The best we can do now is place pressure on the Russian Government, the COE, the EU, the OSCE Representative on the Freedom of the Media, and the UN Special Rapporteur on the Right to Freedom of Expression to make sure this does not go unnoticed, unchallenged, or unsanctioned.

Featured Image Credit: Adams Carroll, Flickr CC. License available here.