On March 12 Russian President Vladimir Putin signed a decree to combine two state bodies that control and license media sources in the country. The Federal Service for Telecom Supervision and the Federal Mass Media and Cultural Oversight Service have been merged to create a new agency responsible for licensing and censoring both mass media and electronic media.
Russian journalists immediately denounced this step as the authorities’ attempt to take control of the Internet in Russia. “The new agency can give the Kremlin a right to lay its hands on one of the last strongholds of freedom of speech in the country, the Internet. This can eliminate the future generation of the Russian journalists,” says Alexei Venediktov, head of Echo Moskvy radio.
The main aim of the new structure is to monitor all media sources, including websites, and decide whether to grant licenses or not. The new agency will be able to revoke licenses and block access to any information source on the Internet.
The Russian authorities have been trying to find ways to control the Internet since 2000, when the first informational websites started to appear in the country. However, it is more challenging that shutting down a TV channel or a newspaper. The Internet is the freest and cheapest tool to spread information in a society, and as more people use it, it is becoming more dangerous for authoritarian regimes. China, Belarus, and Turkmenistan already censor Internet usage. In China the authorities use the so-called Great Wall Firewall to block access to websites that officials regard as dangerous to local “stability.” In Belarus special agents inspect Internet cafes, while the only three access sites in Turkmenistan are guarded by army units.
In contrast, Putin’s Russia still tries to project at least an image of democracy before the world. Vladimir Tarachev, a State Duma deputy and a member of the pro-Kremlin United Russia party, introduced a draft “Law on the Internet” in 2001. The draft sought “to strengthen control of the federal organs of state power over the Russian part of the world-wide web.” Ludmilla Narusova, head of the Federation Council Committee on Information Policy, supported the draft since, as she put it, “Journalists and Internet providers that post their texts on different websites should be responsible for them” (dni.ru, April 16, 2004).
However, they soon realized that it is difficult to effectively censor the Internet. Tarachaev’s draft has been revised. In 2004 Mikhail Lesin, a former Russian media minister and a current Russian presidential media adviser, tried to push the draft to make it an official law, but his efforts failed due to public resistance.
In 2005, the authorities again declared that the Internet should be under government control. Leonid Reiman, minister of information technologies and communications, explained that Russia needs control over the Internet to protect users from violence, pornography, or destructive computer viruses, while Andrei Romanchenko, deputy media minister, announced that the government should protect society from harmful online content (vip.lenta.ru, July 4, 2005).
Last fall, the Ministry of Interior Affairs as well as the Prosecutor-General’s Office appealed to the Russian legislature to adopt a law that would allow officials to punish owners of websites in Russia for information they post. “As new parliamentary and presidential elections are coming, there are more and more proposals to limit freedom of speech in the Internet,” concluded Novye Izvestiya newspaper (October 26, 2006).
At the same time, the Duma started to work on a law that would give Internet publications the same status as the mass media. Putin’s decree to create a combined body to control both types of communications licenses and content parallels the Duma’s efforts.
The main reason the Kremlin wants to control the Internet is not to eliminate pornography, but a fear of the popularity of the Internet among anti-Putin youth organizations. The Putin opposition uses the Internet for propaganda purposes, which makes the Kremlin quite nervous. With enough legal justifications to close websites still lacking, the authorities instead use hackers to crash the systems at opportune moments. Early this month, on the eve of the March of the Discontents in St. Petersburg, a street protest organized by the united anti-Putin front, hackers hired by the Federal Security Service spammed opposition sites with the information about the upcoming event.
Surely, those acts violate not only Russian laws, but international laws as well. That is why the Kremlin needs to legitimize its struggle against remnants of freedom of speech in the country. The authorities hope that the new law that Duma is preparing to adopt as well as the new combined agency to control mass media will help them to keep the opposition gagged and avoid mass street protests before the presidential election.