Staunton, April 10 -It is a measure of how Moscow has tightened the screws on the media that Russia will “soon become a country in which there will be more blocked websites than working ones,” according to Svetlana Kuzevanova, a legal specialist at the Voronezh Center for the Defense of Media Rights.
In an interview to the Svobodnyye novosti-Volga news agency, Kuzevanova said that the situation has already reached the point where Moscow has declared her Center to be “a foreign agent,” apparently because the Russian justice ministry thinks that defending the rights of journalists in court is itself “political activity.”
But what is especially worrisome, she continued, is that officials are openly ignoring even existing laws about the Internet and NGOs for political or other purposes, refusing for example to close down child pornography sites as the law requires but shuttering politically unwelcome ones instantly.
Kuzevanova began her interview with a discussion of the ways in which officials are using the epithet “foreign agent” to restrict entirely legal activities. All sensible people understand, she said, that for ordinary Russians, the title “foreign agent” means that an individual or group is “an absolute enemy of the state.”
Thus, saying the term doesn’t mean anything is delusional: it was chosen by the powers that be for a purpose. If Moscow simply wanted to require NGOs receiving grants from abroad to declare that fact, it could have used a different term, possibly “’an NGO with foreign financing’ or something else. There are very many terms in Russian.”
The fact that the regime selected precisely this term, Kuzevanova says, shows that they had “an absolutely clear goal: they understand that organizations which would be included in this registry would not want to work under this name” and would “all the time be forced to explain that we are not bad but good.”
The label is bad enough, but it is accompanied by reporting requirements and fines that make it worse. Moreover, and this is something many do not yet recognize the implications of, all NGOs classified as foreign agents must label their products as produced by a foreign agent, something that in many cases undercuts the possibilities for useful work.
Kuzevanova pointed out that organizations like hers which works to defend journalists in court are hardly likely to get much support from the Russian government which has little interest in such defense and thus must rely on grants from others, including from foreign sources. If those sources are closed down, so too will be the Center’s ability to fulfill its mission.
The legal specialist then turned to the issue of internet freedom in Russia, something increasingly under threat because the Russian authorities do not understand the medium and increasingly ignore what laws there are. That leads them to conclude that the easiest thing for them to do is to block sites they don’t like.
It also explains, she says, why officials sometimes go after administrators, sometimes after site owners, and sometimes after users. They simply don’t know what they should do. “For there to be quality legislation, there must be quality understanding of terminology and the essential features of the processes involved. But that does not exist.”
And its absence means that in Russia today, there is “an insane number of laws about blocking” websites rather than taking any other action. “It seems to me,” Kuzevanova says, “that soon we will become a country in which blocked sites will be more numerous than those which are working.”
Increasingly, she says, Russian lawyers are throwing up their hands because there are so many rules that can be used to block sites, even though “blocking is the death of the resource now. Procedures for blocking are written in the law, but they don’t work” because they are applied selectively and politically instead of in terms of the laws’ intent.
Thus, the sites of Yezhednevny zhurnal, Grani.ru and Kasparov.ru have been blocked, and appeals from their operators have been ignored. But one of Kuzevanova’s colleagues has been working to try to close a child pornography file sharing site, but officials have ignored his calls to shutter it. As a result, “the site works and continues to disseminate its horrific ‘content.’”