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Published On: Sat, Feb 11th, 2017

Freedom of Speech, Bloggers and Independent Media under Threat in Russia

Christof Lehmann (nsnbc) : Statements via the Internet have landed scores of Russians behind bars. Bloggers with more than 5,000 daily visitors have to register as media and bloggers are subject to repression and threats. Media are not allowed to have more than 20% foreign ownership. Sexuality is “regulated”….. Welcome, Russia joined the global trend aimed to put the freedom of speech spirit that escaped from the lamp with the rise of the internet back behind bars.

Tatiana - Popova/Shutterstock

Tatiana – Popova/Shutterstock

Those of us who are old enough will remember the days when “dissidents” and “terrorist sympathizers” in West Germany risked five years behind bars for publishing the wrong kind of leftist literature while equally unfortunate Soviet and East German citizens had to pass on Samizdat from hand to hand – risking a free train ticket to Siberia or worse.

Well, times were changing and “the times are a changing”, as Dylan wrote and sang; and Russia now joined the global trend aimed to reverse the freedom of speech and the free information flow the internet has brought to you.

Russian State sponsored media outlets like RT would of course rather focus on Le Monde’s latest App that will tell you whether or not a news site is good, bad or ugly, on the fact that PropOrNot will tell you all about things they apparently don’t have a clue about and the fact that the Washington Post regurgitates the list without question.

That’s bad – true – but one may want to take the pulse of the much-fabled freedom of speech and media freedom in Russia too, to recognize the fact that censorship and crackdown on dissent is a disturbing global trend.

No, You Are Not Caught in a Bad Movie – It’s Reality TV and You Are Part of the Show, Whether You Like It or Not …

Censorship_NSA_NEOTake One - Russian law stipulates that blogs and websites involved in news reporting with more than 5,000 individual readers per day must register as media. This could arguably be acceptable if it wasn’t for two facts.

1) Registration implies all of the “obligations” that follow with being registered as a media.

2) Registration does not imply that one enjoys the same “privileges and protection” that major media like, let’s say “Russia Today” and its staff enjoy.

Australia is currently setting the “gold standard”, even though there are enough problems there too. Bloggers and independent journalists enjoy the same protection under the law as journalists from major media – this includes, protection of sources, protection from persecution, etc…

Censorship_Turkey_ADTake Two - The international rights organization Agora reports that at least 47 people in Russia have been imprisoned for statements made online since the beginning of 2015. Many more had their websites and blogs classified as “extremist” and/or blocked by the government.

Take Three - In 2016 Russian law enforcement opened 298 criminal cases against people over statements made online. 28 received prison sentences while three were mandatorily sent to psychiatric hospitals – which reminds of the abuse of psychiatry in Soviet days.

The average prison term for those convicted was two years. The total “casualty rate” if you will, is 59 years behind bars for one year of freedom of speech. Moreover, the trend is rising not decreasing. In 2015 there were “only” 202 cases with “only” 18 persons being sent to prison.

Here's the wat to report that won't get you into trouble. Photo, courtesy of ITAR-TASS

Here’s the way to report that won’t get you into trouble. Photo, courtesy of ITAR-TASS

Take Four - The likelihood of prosecution is higher for internet users who wrote about Russia’s involvement in military conflicts abroad. Critical statements about Russian involvement in the conflicts in Ukraine and Syria are a significant indicator reports Agora.

Moreover, in addition to legal prosecution, Russian bloggers and journalists received threats and were subjected to physical assaults. Agora registered 28 cases of violence and physical threats against bloggers and reporters from online outlets in 2015. In 2016, the figure had almost doubled to 50 cases.

Take Five - nsnbc international observed that the trend that can be observed in “pro-western” social media groups also can be observed in “pro-Russian” social media groups.

That is, admins of, for example, “pro-Putinist” Facebook groups often are identical with journalists who report for Russian State-funded media, work as “advisers” to Russian State-funded media, or are prolific writers in indirectly State-funded, allegedly “independent” media with often murky financial ties.

Take Six - A “balanced geopolitical analysis” that does not reflect either Russian or Western bias has led to “nsnbc being banned” from social media groups.

That’s right, if one isn’t sufficiently western-biased one lands on the PropOrNot list (thanks to PropOrNot for the free advertising in the Washington Post – we could never have afforded to pay for an ad there); and if one isn’t sufficiently pro-Russian biased one’s articles are banned  in “pro-Russian social media groups” – No difference in that regard, between Russia, the USA, China, North Korea, and the France of Le Monde. The “global trend” reveals that “actually independent media” are targeted everywhere – especially on social media, and also in Russia.

Censored_Censorship_SP_OCTake Seven - Agora registered 24,000 cases in which some form of online content was banned in 2016. An almost threefold increase in comparison to 2015, when there were only 7,300 of these rulings. There were only 830 similar cases between 2011 and 2014. Agora also noted that the number of regulatory initiatives on online information doubled between 2015 and 2016. Of 97 regulations put in place, the majority increased the liability of users and increased government surveillance.

Take Eight - Agora noted that in April 2016, several members of opposition groups reported attempts by intelligence services to access their accounts or intercept text messages. Dozens of human rights activists and journalists were warned by Google that state-backed hackers were attempting to access their accounts.

These figures may be especially noteworthy because Russian State-funded media repeatedly conveyed statements by, for example President Vladimir Putin, who insisted that Russia it is not conducting NSA or GCHQ – like mass surveillance and that it only conducts surveillance after a judge has issued a permit.

Take Nine - Registering an independent newspaper like nsnbc international in Russia would be extremely complicated, if not impossible. Russian legislation severely curbs the rights of media with more than 20 percent foreign ownership. Taking into account that nsnbc is owned by this author (who has paid for almost all its expenses since 2013  – donations most welcome and needed) this of course complicates registration. Registration would become even more complicated once the relatively young newspaper has achieved its goal to have contributing journalists from as many countries as possible as co-owners – and stakeholders. So much to Russia facilitating horizontal ownership and editorial systems rather than oligarchical, top-down managed systems.

821 media outlets in Russia had to separate from their foreign owners in 2016 under legislation curbing international ownership. Moreover, Russian authorities are considering creating an alternative segment of the Internet that would be completely isolated from the global network.  The isolation of a Russian internet under State and oligarchical control is being promoted under the euphemistic slogan “Information-Oriented Society”. The program is aimed at having  99 percent of the Internet traffic in Russia go through Russian networks by 2020.

google-search-censored-featuredTake Ten - In July 2016 Russia’s parliament adopted the controversial anti-terror legislation known as the Yarovaya Law. The laws will come into effect in July 1, 2018. It requires all Russian telecom operators and Internet service providers to store records of their users’ calls, messages, and files for six months. Providers must store information detailing the existence of the communications for three years. In other words, it will be more than just your “metadata” that will be stored. Most western European and other countries have had similar legislation implemented during the late 1990s and early 2000s. What makes the Russian case “extraordinary” is that there is almost no critical  “debate” about it in the State-funded or State-compliant media.

One of the most controversial and dangerous aspects of the law is that it severely enhances state surveillance of internet correspondence in a State that increasingly consolidates entrenched oligarchical structures that encompass big finance, big industry, intelligence services, law enforcement and government structures. The most correct designations would probably be corporatism and oligarchy. The icing on the cake? Internet providers will be required to hand over to law enforcement agencies the keys to decrypt all traffic. If you haven’t yet watched Orwell’s 1984 don’t waste your time on watching the movie and read the book instead. If you absolutely want to watch the movie all you have to do is to open your eyes and you’ll see it unfolding around you in better quality than any TV, movie theater or virtual reality could deliver.

CH/L – nsnbc 11.02.2017

About the Author

- Dr. Christof Lehmann is the founder and editor of nsnbc. He is a psychologist and former independent political consultant on conflict, conflict resolution and a wide range of other political issues. In March 2013 he established nsnbc as a daily, independent, international on-line newspaper. He can be contacted at nsnbc international at nsnbc.wordpress@gmail.com

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