Over the past year, the Russian government has significantly increased its pressure on the country’s media. With ever-increasing frequency, the Federal Supervision Agency for Information Technologies and Communications (Roskomnadzor) has issued warnings to independent media outlets, which, in turn, obediently comply with the unlawful orders of Russia’s censorship body. According to writer Alexander Podrabinek, most Russian journalists simply don’t value free speech enough to defend it.
Many, if not all, of Russia’s misfortunes stem from a disrespect for freedom—for one’s own freedom, for the freedom of others, for civil and political freedom. Although the majority of Russians likely do value freedom, they clearly do not value it enough to place it at the top of their values.
What is worse, though, is that even those who see freedom as a vital need and a necessary working condition are not prepared to pay for it, even at a small cost. They regard freedom as an expensive gift that they are happy to accept if it is offered to them, but otherwise can do without.
People’s disrespect for freedom of speech is a good example of this lazy consumer attitude. Who needs free speech more than journalists? Without it, journalism turns into propaganda, the proof of which we see every day on nearly every Russian TV channel.
Using various pretexts, the Russian authorities consistently shut down those media outlets they deem too independent. The Tomsk TV-2 channel went off-air on January 1, 2015. The official reason for shutting down TV-2 sounds absurd: the broadcasting center was allegedly offended by some remarks the channel made regarding its technical services. In March 2014, the Russian censorship body, Roskomnadzor, put the websites Grani.ru, Ej.ru, and Kasparov.ru on the list of banned Internet resources. On Roskomnadzor’s order, Russian Internet providers blocked access to these online publications throughout Russia.
In Tomsk, the closure of TV-2 led to two rallies of support that gathered several thousand people demanding the attack against the channel be stopped. Several hundred people participated in a similar rally in Moscow. The blocked websites went to court but received no help there. The Russian judicial system is under the executive branch’s strict control.
The bottom line is quite simple: those media outlets that do not recognize state censorship end up losing a considerable portion of their audience. Of course, TV-2 managed to switch to cable and Internet broadcasting, and it’s not difficult to get around the block put on the banned websites. But both the audience and advertising opportunities of these media outlets have decreased considerably. The persecuted media outlets are barely surviving.
Striving to destroy Russian independent media financially, the government introduced to the obedient State Duma a bill envisaging fines of between 100,000 and 1 million rubles for terrorist propaganda or justification of terrorism and extremism in the media. Russian courts can interpret any action, including criticism of the police or a branch of power, as extremism.
When it first began cracking down on media outlets, Roskomnadzor would point to specific content that was allegedly criminal in nature; nowadays, though, Russia’s censorship body considers this unnecessary. The warnings it issues either contain no reference to specific content or give no explanation as to how such content violates the law.
In late December 2014, Roskomnadzor sent written warnings to a number of electronic media in connection with the publication of materials containing public calls to change the country’s constitutional order. Polit.ru, Business Online, BFM.ru, and Mediazona websites received such warnings. A few days earlier, the same warning was issued to Radio Liberty. And before that, Facebook and Twitter got warnings for publishing private blogs of their users containing calls to attend a rally in support of opposition leader Alexei Navalny. The Ukrainian news website Gordon received a warning for the same alleged violation.
In order to defend freedom, one must first value it. One must be prepared to pay for it—not merely expect it to fall into one’s lap like a gift from above. And this constitutes a big problem for most Russian journalists.
On the face of it, the Russian censorship body issuing orders to foreign mass media seems almost amusing. Today’s information space is sufficiently globalized as to not be subject to national jurisdictions. National governments can only limit the dissemination of information on their own territories by forcing Internet operators to comply with their orders. Or by forcing journalists to do so.
The very existence of Roskomnadzor constitutes a violation of Article 29 of the Russian Constitution, which prohibits media censorship. This contradiction, however, seems not to bother anyone. The Russian media considers Roskomnadzor a legitimate government institution—and it’s not alone in this appraisal.
The initial reactions of Facebook and Twitter were truly servile—they conceded and blocked the pages that contained appeals to attend the rally in support of Navalny. A few days later, they reconsidered and rescinded the blockage. What happened to them after that? Nothing. Both social networks are very much alive and accessible. Similarly, last August, Roskomnadzor demanded that the British Broadcasting Corporation (BBC) remove its story about Artem Loskutov and his interview on the march “for the federalization of Siberia.” The BBC refused to do so. So what happened? Nothing. Everyone got over it and forgot about it.
Thankfully, today one doesn’t need courage to refuse to comply with censorship, but only a sense of dignity and respect for freedom—global freedom as well as one’s own. After brief consideration, the Ukrainian news website Gordon complied with the demand of its neighboring country’s censorship body and removed the story in question. As its editors explained, they did this to prevent the site from being blocked in Russia and so that “Russians would not lose access to honest information.” This concern is touching—but why do Russian readers need Ukrainian journalism that has been censored by the Russian authorities? And can such information really be considered “honest”?
It is more difficult for Russian media outlets to fight censorship—but they need freedom of speech more than anyone. So what’s the outcome? Ekho Moskvy radio, TV Rain, Nozaya Gazeta, the New Times, the Russian Reporter, Slon.ru, and other more or less independent media outlets duly comply with Roskomnadzor’s unlawful demands, and then go on to file complaints in the courts—but this is a “kneeling rebellion.” Justice is rare in Russian courts. Especially in political cases.
Some media outlets do not even disclose to the public the warnings they receive from Roskomnadzor. They comply with them quietly—and then rejoin the opposition! Indeed Roskomnadzor itself does not publish all of its warnings on its official website. And so the opposition-minded press and the authorities strengthen their cooperation.
So what has become of freedom of speech in Russia? It is being defended only by those few who refuse to recognize state censorship and ignore Roskomnadzor’s warnings. There is indeed risk involved in resistance. There is indeed a threat of being closed down. But that is the price of freedom of speech. Those who really need free speech pay for it. Those who only pay lip service to free speech comply with the demands of the censors.
What do those individuals who resist censorship risk today? They do not risk their lives, as they did in Stalin’s time. They do not risk their personal freedom, as in Brezhnev’s time. They do not even risk their wellbeing; not one of them will go hungry. But in order to defend freedom, one must first value it. One must be prepared to pay for it—not merely expect it to fall into one’s lap like a gift from above. And this constitutes a big problem for most Russian journalists.