Internet Freedom Will Russia's Bloggers Survive Censorship Push?
Part 2: The Fifth Estate
Since the Kremlin has brought almost all major television stations under its control over the last decade, and since newspapers and magazines have low circulations -- and are often owned by oligarchs with close ties to the government -- it has been left to the bloggers to exercise the checks-and-balances function traditionally performed by the media. Even tabloids such as the Komsomolskaya Pravda have praised bloggers as the "Fifth Estate."
Indeed, these days, it's usually bloggers -- rather than members of the traditional media -- who expose scandals and give voice to grievances. Blog reports by a student on conditions at a nursing home near Moscow, for example, led to the firing of its corrupt director. And, this spring, when a Mercedes belonging to a high-level manager at the oil giant Lukoil sped into a car in the opposite lane and killed two women, crime scene photographs published online exposed police attempts at a cover-up.
"Russia's bloggers are simply the most serious," says Brad Fitzpatrick, the American founder of LiveJournal, an online service that allows people to set up their own blogs. And there's no doubt that bloggers in Russia are more influential than they are anywhere else.
This degree of influence was one of the factors that led Adagamov -- whose online moniker is "Drugoi," or "the Other" -- to give up his comfortable life in Norway as the creative director of an advertising agency five years ago and move to Moscow. Still, it remains to be seen whether he will be able to work as freely here as he was able to in the past.
"President Medvedev isn't a bad guy," Adagamov says, "and I appreciate his openness." But he remains skeptical as to whether the president will ultimately succeed in pushing through his ideas about the Internet. As Adagamov sees it, "the Internet is the last free territory -- but it won't stay that way for long."
Russia's Anti-Internet-Freedom Crusader
One of Russia's sharpest-tongued opponents of online freedom is Robert Schlegel, who comes from an ethnic German family. Like Adagamov, Schlegel owns an iPad and writes a blog. But, unlike Adagamov, the 25 year old is not one of the "Others." Instead, he belongs to "Nashi" (literally "Ours"), a pro-Putin, Kremlin-controlled youth organization. Since leaving a position as a Nashi spokesman in 2007, Schlegel has served as a member of parliament for Putin's United Russia party. At the moment, he is working on a new Internet law that would introduce a type of electronic passport for every user, making the Internet as easy to control as the other forms of media that have been amenable to promoting government interests.
Schlegel dreams of someday becoming a minister. In the meantime, he gives instruction to young patriots as they film video clips for YouTube at Nashi's summer camp on Lake Seliger, halfway between Moscow and St. Petersburg.
Nashi members are notoriously fervent Putin admirers. Some time ago, the critical daily newspaper Kommersant even accused the group of having carried out cyber attacks that paralyzed its website.
Last year, Schlegel even suggested allowing newspapers to be shut down for "defamation" and lobbied for a strict limit on the proportion of foreign films shown in Russian movie theaters, in the belief that: "Many media sources abuse their freedoms."
Which Path Will Business Pursue?
Alexander Mamut, Russia's most powerful Internet oligarch, will have to take a stand somewhere between Adagamov and Schlegel, between the progressive blogger and the conservative Internet regulator. In 2007, Mamut -- whose wealth is estimated to be $1.5 billion, according to the American business magazine Forbes -- bought a majority share of LiveJournal. Nearly half of all Russian blogs operate on the blog-hosting site, including those of Adagamov and his adversary Schlegel.
The question, of course, is: Which side is Mamut on? The magnate, who refuses to grant interviews on political topics, will only say: "Russia needs to finally learn to cultivate its people instead of its raw materials."
- Part 1: Will Russia's Bloggers Survive Censorship Push?
- Part 2: The Fifth Estate