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11 July 2008

Criticism = extremism

The last bastion of free speech in Russia is the internet, but it too is in serious peril as the sen

By Matthew Schaaf

Speech critical of the government, considered undesirable by the authorities, or which might incite “conflict,” has increasingly fallen prey to Russia’s vague anti-extremism law.

Earlier this week, Savva Terentyev, an obscure musician and blogger from Russia’s northern republic of Komi, became the first individual to be convicted of extremism on the basis of a comment left in a blog.

Terentyev received a one-year suspended sentence for a ranting criticism of the police, in which he, using a rhetorical flourish, called for burning bad cops twice daily in the central square of every Russian city.

The judge ruled that Terentyev had used the media intentionally to incite hatred and hostility, and that he had humiliated policemen as a “social group.”

Terentyev’s comment was by any measure offensive. However, it was hardly a credible call to violence. It was appended to someone else’s blog posting, and was deleted shortly after it was written. The authorities simply didn’t like Terentyev’s criticism, so they decided to stretch the law to send a warning to other would-be critics – not even the web can offer refuge, so be careful what you say, we are watching you and we will get you.

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Vigorous efforts to combat extremism are understandable in light of the alarming growth in attacks and nationalistic, racist or religious motivated violence in Russia. Russian authorities, however, have also increasingly used the extremism law’s vague provisions to stitch together criminal cases against strident and opinionated critics, people venting steam, and the political opposition, on and off-line.

Shutting down critical and unfriendly speech is happening with increased frequency in Russia today. For the last few years the authorities have tried to close down Ingushetiya.ru, a website affiliated with the political opposition in the small North Caucasus republic of Ingushetia. In November 2007, visitors to the site, which was attempting to provide news of a planned protest against human rights abuses, were forwarded to a porn website. This innovative strategy backfired however, and provoked a wave of indignation directed at the government. The authorities then chose to take the “rule of law” approach. The prosecutor’s office alleged that some materials published on Ingushetiya.ru, particularly an interview with an opposition leader sharply critical of the president, included extremist content. On this basis, in June 2008, a Moscow court ruled to have the website closed down for disseminating extremist materials.  Ingushetiya.ru is currently appealing this ruling and meanwhile continues to operate.

In other cases, prosecutors have sent warnings about alleged involvement in extremism to newspapers that write about religious and ethnic conflicts. Government agencies that oversee NGOs have “audited” human rights organizations for signs of extremism, and in one case, even issued an official non-extremist certificate to one which passed the dubious test. Gay rights groups cannot register officially because promoting gay and lesbian rights is viewed as extremism. One gay rights group was recently called in for an “audit” by the organised crime department of the police. The insidious aim and cumulative effect of these extremism “audits” is clear: to keep citizens from speaking out.

Even art is not immune from spurious claims of extremism. Yuri Samodurov, director of the Andrei Sakharov Museum in Moscow is being charged with inciting religious hatred for hosting the provocative exhibit “Forbidden Art-2006,” a compilation of art banned from museums and galleries in Moscow in 2006. Visitors to the exhibition had to make a special effort to view it: each piece could be viewed only through a peephole in a curtain with the work’s title hung in front if it.

The prosecution of Terentyev and others on dubious extremism charges can serve only one purpose: to silence them. The stifling and pernicious effect of the anti-extremism law and its use against critical bloggers, commentators, and artists is palpable. As one blogger pointed out during a heated debate in the wake of Terentyev’s conviction, “This concerns all of us!” Now that ranting on a blog is considered “mass communication,” bloggers are warning that they have got to watch out for themselves.

There is a simple answer if you don’t like the criticism: stay away from the web, cover your ears, and don’t go near the curtain. But criticism of the government or debate about controversial issues is not extremist activity, but rather a normal and vital feature of a plural democratic society. A responsible government however, will listen to its citizens’ concerns and criticisms, rather than tell them to shut up.

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