The Helsingin Sanomat reports:
Media freedom in Russia is doing about as well as it is in China and Iran – in other words, quite badly, according to the ranking of the US Freedom House organisation, which monitors freedom of the press in different countries. The organisation rates countries as free, partly free, and not free. Russia ranks in the third group. Challengers of Russia’s present holders of power find it very difficult to get their voices heard on television channels, which are the most influential sector in the Russian media. Even though television is powerfully under Kremlin control, the press uses its freedom of expression in a more versatile manner. The greatest amount of freedom is on the Internet – and that is why some in Russia are worried at the signs of possible attempts to control the Web. According to the opposition, the Web continues to offer a channel for voices that are critical of the Kremlin.
“The Web is quickly becoming the last refuge of dissent in my country … And lately even the Web has become a target of the Kremlin, which wants to control and monitor our every thought and deed.”, wrote chess-master-turned-opposition leader Garry Kasparov in Business Week recently. Kasparov is one of the leaders of the Other Russia opposition movement. For the group, the Internet is an efficient tool for calling people to demonstrations. The movement’s website fell victim to a massive hacker attack shortly before a march of dissidents in Moscow.
Kasparov’s aide Marina Litvinovich told Helsingin Sanomat that at the time, the movement began to distribute information via a live journal. Litvinovich sees the hacker attacks as a new form of technical censorship. “You cannot turn off the Internet, but it is possible to limit access to certain pages.” Litvinovich says that the hacking was conducted in Russia, but his group has not managed to find out who organised it. About 28 million of Russia’s 142 million inhabitants are regular users of the Internet – about 20 per cent of the population, says the Russian FOM research institute. LR: That’s right, 80% of Russia’s population has no regular access to the Internet. EIGHTY percent.
A question arose in the spring on whether or not the new state authority established to regulate the activities and licencing of the media was to be enhanced by controlling Internet publications as well. The office that was established to “monitor the mass media and protect cultural heritage” was set up by linking two old services with each other. Its mandate includes “the legal regulation, control and guidance” of the media, “as well as questions of copyright”. Critics say that the new office has laid the groundwork for closer control of the media. Assurances were given by the communications department of the Kremlin that the aim was simply to clarify the structure of the new state authority. “The task if the new authority is to distribute licences. This is not control of the Internet”, said information officer Dmitri Peskov to the Bloomberg news agency.
One of those who were worried was Roman Badanin, the head of the political department of Russia’s leading on-line publication, gazeta.ru. “The new super-authority has not yet had any impact”, he says now to Helsingin Sanomat. In his view, the risks still exist. Setting up a new office was a strategic, rather than a tactical move for him. Russia is in the midst of an election year, and Badanin says that how the new authority is used will be seen when the successor of the current President, Vladimir Puti, is elected next year. Russia has several news websites, which are not on-line versions of a paper publication. Instead, they appear only on the Internet. Gazeta.ru was set up in 1999, and it was soon sold to the oil company Yukos. Last year, it changed owners again. It was bought by businessman Alisher Usmanov, who had bought a company that publishes the daily Kommersant earlier in the same year. The 18th-richest person in Russia, who earned his fortune in the metals business, is also the manager of Gazprominvestholding, a subsidiary of the state gas company Gazprom, looking after its investments. According to Badanin, the new owner does not have any influence on the journalistic content of the publication – at least not yet. In his view, it would be difficult to use media of the kind that gazeta.ru is for propaganda purposes. “Our readers are independent-thinking people. They will make their own decisions no matter what.”