Bloomberg reports on the Kremlin’s attempt to establish a chokehold on Russia’s blogosphere:
President Vladimir Putin has already brought Russian newspapers and television to heel. Now he’s turning his attention to the Internet.
As the Kremlin gears up for the election of Putin’s successor next March, Soviet-style controls are being extended to online news after a presidential decree last month set up a new agency to supervise both mass media and the Web.
“It’s worrying that this happened ahead of the presidential campaign,” Roman Bodanin, political editor of Gazeta.ru, Russia’s most prominent online news site, said in a telephone interview. “The Internet is the freest medium of communication today because TV is almost totally under government control, and print media largely so.”
All three national TV stations are state-controlled, and the state gas monopoly, OAO Gazprom, has been taking over major newspapers; self-censorship is routine. That has left the Internet as the main remaining platform for political debate, and Web sites that test the boundaries of free speech are already coming under pressure.
In December, a court in the Siberian region of Khakassia shut down the Internet news site Novy Fokus for not registering as a media outlet. The site, known for its critical reporting, reopened in late March after it agreed to register and accept stricter supervision.
Anticompromat.ru, which wrote about Putin’s pre-presidential business interests, had to find a U.S. Web server after a Russian service provider pulled the plug March 28, saying it had been warned by officials to stop hosting the site.
Last year, the authorities shut down a Web site called Kursiv in the city of Ivanovo, northeast of Moscow, that lampooned Putin as a “phallic symbol of Russia” for his drive to boost the birthrate.
Putin’s spokesman, Dmitry Peskov, said Russia isn’t restricting media freedom and that the new agency isn’t aimed at policing the Web.
“If you watch TV, even federal TV channels, you’ll hear lots of criticism of the government,” Peskov said in an interview. “This new agency will be in charge of licensing. It’s not about controlling the Internet.”
Putin, 54, isn’t allowed to run for re-election in 2008 under Russia’s two-term constitutional limit. Instead, he is promoting two potential successors: First Deputy Prime Minister Dmitry Medvedev, a 41-year-old lawyer, and Sergei Ivanov, 54, a KGB colleague of Putin who oversees much of Russian industry, including transport and nuclear power. The two, who both come from Putin’s hometown of St. Petersburg, have become fixtures on state-controlled television.
Former Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev, whose policy of glasnost, or openness, ushered in media freedom in the late 1980s after decades of Soviet censorship, has condemned the state propaganda on the airwaves.
“The one thing I can say is that it’s pointless today to watch television,” Gorbachev, 76, said on the 20th anniversary of the launch of “perestroika,” his drive to allow more political and economic freedom that led to the collapse of the Soviet Union.
While most Russians rely on television for news, increasing numbers are turning to the Internet. Around a quarter of the adult population — 28 million people — are regular Internet users, according to the Public Opinion Foundation, a Moscow-based research organization. In 2002, only 8 percent fell into that category.
A Mass Medium
“When the Internet becomes more of a mass medium, then governments start getting worried, and they start treating it like the mass media,” said Esther Dyson, who helped establish the Internet’s system of domain names and addresses, and has consulted extensively in Russia.
“You can’t control the Internet, but you can control people,” she said in a telephone interview during a visit to Moscow.
Oleg Panfilov, head of the Center for Journalism in Extreme Situations in Moscow, predicted in a telephone interview that “pressure on the media is going to worsen” as the presidential succession draws nearer.
Reporters who write critically about government policies are subjected to intimidation, arrests, attacks and other forms of pressure, the Vienna-based International Helsinki Federation for Human Rights said March 27 in its annual report.
Viktor Shmakov, editor of the newspaper Provintsialny Vesti in the oil-rich Bashkortostan republic, is facing up to 10 years in prison. Prosecutors charged him with inciting mass disturbances after his weekly urged readers to attend an opposition rally last year.
Russia is the second most dangerous country for journalists after Iraq, with 88 killed in the past 10 years, according to the Brussels-based International News Safety Institute.
Last October, Anna Politkovskaya, a prominent reporter and Kremlin critic who uncovered human-rights abuses by security forces in the southern Russian republic of Chechnya, was shot dead in the elevator of her apartment building in Moscow.
A journalist for the Kommersant daily, Ivan Safronov, who was investigating Russian weapons sales to Iran and Syria, fell to his death from a window in his Moscow apartment March 2.
The government, meanwhile, has been expanding Gazprom’s media role. The company already took control of independent channel NTV in 2001 and bought long-established Russian daily Izvestia in 2005.
Last year, Kommersant, once owned by tycoon and exiled Kremlin critic Boris Berezovsky, was sold to Alisher Usmanov, a steel magnate who is head of a Gazprom subsidiary. And Gazprom said in November it will acquire Russia’s biggest-selling daily, Komsomolskaya Pravda, which has a circulation of 800,000.
Vladimir Rakhmankov, editor of the Web site that lost its Russian server after mocking Putin, said the Web crackdown is part of the final phase of a campaign to stifle free speech.
“Thank God the Internet is difficult to close down, but I think they will go after journalists who write things they don’t like,” he said.