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1 April 2008

The danger of ranting in Russia

How some ill-advised comments on an obscure blog resulted in a commenter being put on trial in Russi

By Matthew Schaaf

LiveJournal, the vibrant Russian blogging community that accounts for nearly 50 per cent of blogging in Russia, may not be lively for much longer. The site, like most other forms of media and free expression in Russia, is in jeopardy as authorities are seeking to rein in independent voices.

Today, Savva Terentyev, a musician in Syktyvkar, 1,000 km northeast of Moscow, is being tried as an extremist for blowing off steam about the local police on another user’s LiveJournal blog.

It’s the first time Russia has prosecuted someone for blogging. Meanwhile, Moscow is trying to gain further control over free speech by expanding state access to all telecommunications and by proposing tight regulation of the Internet and its users.

Terentyev’s supposed crime was to speak about corruption in Russian law-enforcement, insulting police officers as low-lives in a blog posting about a newspaper being persecuted by the authorities. In his diatribe, he invoked images of Auschwitz to suggest burning bad cops twice-daily in the central square of every Russian city. The authorities charged Terentyev under Russia’s vague anti-extremism law with inciting violence, hatred, or enmity against a social group – policemen.

Contrary to a statement by the Syktyvkar investigator, arguing for Terentyev’s right to speak does not imply an endorsement of his views. Terentyev’s screed is repugnant, but appearing as it did on a blog with a small readership in an outlying region can’t be taken as a genuine call to violence. It certainly didn’t pose a severe danger to the public, as Russian law requires. It would be another story if he’d been screaming at an anti-police rally in the main city square, but hardly anyone read Terentyev’s post before it was deleted by the blog’s owner and no one found it worthy of comment. He was doing what people on blogs do – ranting.

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It would be more palatable to defend free speech in Russia in a case without an offensive reference to Auschwitz, but that case might come too late. Terentyev’s case is a critical precedent that could allow widespread censorship in a country where free media are already dying a slow death.

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This is the government’s initial try-out of the anti-extremism law to stifle speech on the Internet. The prosecution has gone out of its way to stretch an already vague law to target Terentyev. As required by law, the investigators commissioned an expert study to determine if “policemen” were a social group. The experts were, at first, unable to make a clear determination. Curiously, after several months and with the help of Wikipedia, they were able to determine that “policemen” are indeed a social group and that Terentyev’s comments were extremist in nature. But if a legal precedent is established that government officials deserve protected status from criticism, free speech will be really on its deathbed in Russia.

The Russian authorities have steadily increased their control over the media and their power to supervise and monitor private communications. A recent government decree revealed that the security services have the ability to monitor all internet, phone, and mobile communications, unbeknownst to the provider or the user, and require that expensive equipment be installed to facilitate access to such telecommunications from government offices, at the provider’s expense. There is no way to monitor the security services’ assurances that they access the data only with a judicial warrant. The Internet, believed to be one of the only open forums for voicing opinions and criticizing the authorities, is edging toward government control.

Recent alarming proposals floated by the government indicate where Russia may be going. One Duma deputy recently proposed regulating as mass media websites with more than 1,000 daily hits. This would require them to complete mounds of paperwork and submit to the same strict regulation which has helped bring broadcast and print media to heel. Another government proposal would isolate Russia’s Internet from the worldwide Internet, putting the Russian authorities in control of the bridge between the two networks. As is the case in China, the government could then monitor content, open or close the bridge at will, or even block specific sites located on the worldwide Internet.

In light of Russia’s shrinking space for the free exchange of information, Russians have flocked to the Internet. If Terentyev is convicted, bloggers will suffocate under self-censorship. At a recent news conference in Russia on Terentyev’s case, the question kept coming up: “Do bloggers need to watch what they say?” The answer seems to be yes.

Russia’s interlocutors should pressure the Russian government to make sure that the Internet in Russia flourishes and remains free of government interference. If the prosecutors in Syktyvkar have their way, Russians may again be relegated to the only remaining forum for open and frank discussion: the kitchen.

Matthew Schaaf is a consultant for Human Rights Watch