Internet Freedom: Will Russia's Bloggers Survive Censorship Push?

By and Matthias Schepp

Part 2: The Fifth Estate

Photo Gallery: Threatened Online Freedom in Russia Photos
DPA

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."

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1. Free press is like life, you are alive or you are dead, there is nothing in between
Norberto_Tyr 09/02/2010
Free press is like life, you are alive or you are dead, there is nothing in between; we can say that it is atomic, indivisible, not like our current comically and infinitely divisible ‘a atoms’ which are within our scientists’ bad dreams realm as Schopenhauer correctly said (I believe): “as far as I am concerned atoms can be as big as bulls, how come we cannot divide them?”). Well, as far as I am concerned, contrary to atoms we cannot have electrons and protons and so forth out of free press, we have it or not. One aspect spellbinding me due to its blatant incongruity is the fact that in the region we incorrectly call ‘west’ we are incredibly prickly about government censorship but, strangely enough, we are extremely condescend with private censorship. For instance, if we write or speak something and the government attempts to shush US everyone start jumping up and down on their sits, others start cursing and proffering Biblical vendettas swearing and spitting foam from their mouths with the eyes popping out like boiled eggs, other eat grass on their four like the Cid Campeador et cetera; but if a PRIVATE institution takes the liberty of censoring at leisure, none says ‘pip’, that is OK. Well, in my view this is absurd, I understand that if the message in question is anonymous, yes, there is a publisher’s duty not to publish it, but if this is not the case, the responsibility falls on the author, therefore I find this article a bit hypocritical since I do not distinguish between public or private censorship, even more, I would say that private censorship is worse because it cannot be traced back to a person responsible if it is a public or anonymous company (I mean the owner, not the editor), whereas with governments we all know where the buck stops, at the end of the day it is either Medvedev or Putin or both. I find this dichotomy rather hypocritical. Norberto
2. Free for a price.
verbatim128 09/05/2010
---Quote (Originally by sysop)--- With so many of their media sources controlled by the state or government-friendly oligarchs, Russians have turned to their bloggers to keep informed and give voice to their grievances and concerns. But many of those in power are now seeking to impose rigid limits on online freedom. http://www.spiegel.de/international/world/0,1518,714848,00.html ---End Quote--- I find it ironic, though not entirely amusing, what kind of a high horse we are riding in the West every time that we discuss any "freedom" in light of Russia's stubborn insistence to follow its own path to democracy, as tortuous as that may be. How quick we are to point at their failings, real and/or perceived, present or speculated to be imminent. This article provides much more information about who owns what of the Russian Internet than even a modest attempt to answer the rhetorical question in the headline. Censorship push being at issue, over bloggers freedom to use the internet to express their opinions. Perhaps there is such a trend, but why not leave it up to the Russians to counter it? If it is visible at all. Much closer to the naked eye, so to speak, I have carefully red on this online news medium several articles about Mr. Sarrazin's provocative statements which are going to cost him his position on the Bundesbank Board. He wrote a book which he was "free" to publish, he was not "censored" in expressing his opinions in interviews with news media, yet he was relieved from his position clearly as a result of political pressure. Freedom of speech? The accounts of this whole episode could hardly mention "hate" once or twice, never making a lucid argument that it existed--the furore over the genes of Jews and Basques notwithstanding-- yet, and this is only a rhetorical question: Is Mr. Sarrazin's freedom of speech punished in Germany?
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