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Russia: Media Portal Undergoes Check For Extremism

Logo of the Grani.ru, Grani.ru website

Logo of the Grani.ru, Grani.ru website

The war on extremism has become a universal formula used by Russian authorities to fight the freedom of online expression. On February 11, police started an inspection [RUS] of the opposition media portal Grani.ru trying to figure out if it promotes extremism. Grani.ru is well-known as an open platform for liberal journalists and civil right activists. The site is supported by an oligarch in exile Boris Berezovsky [ENG].

The case illustrates the recent “War on Extremism” policy in action. The policy was “launched” in 2006 and became wide-spread during the first term of Dimitry Medvedev's presidency. More and more, this is being applied against online media.

President Dmitri Medvedev established [RUS] Anti-Extremism Police Departments (so-called “‘E’-Centers”) in September 2008. The term “extremism” is vaguely defined by 18 activities [RUS] (causing civil disorder and defamation of the authorities are among them).  This broad definition gives a lot of freedom of interpretation for the authorities. During 2009, for example, 548 crimes were defined as extremism, Grani.ru reported [RUS].

Both individual activists and whole groups fell victim to the broad definition of the term. The prosecutor's office published an online list of “extremist materials” [RUS] that currently consists of 490 items and continues to grow. Since the introduction of the president's decree, civil rights activists have been continuously insisting [RUS] on changing the definition of extremism and disbanding “E”-Centers.

The recent inspection of Grani.ru started with a telephone call from the local “E”-Center representative Alexander Skripnikov. He requested a personal meeting with the Web site director and asked for documents indicating that the site is registered officially (common practice for online media in Russia). The “E”-Center representative also stated that the site is under investigation for alleged extremist activities. Grani.ru editor-in-chief and the director refused to meet personally and requested an official response from the authorities that was delivered to the Web site's office the next day.

During the inspection, the police and prosecutor's office plan to establish if the articles published on the Web site contain calls for ethnic conflicts or promote the regime change. It is the second time that the authorities have inspected Grani.ru for publishing allegedly extremist materials. The first inspection was conducted in 2007-2008 and was aimed against one of the Grani.ru's authors Andrey Piontkovsky [EN], Russian scientist and political writer.

In an interview in “Ezhednevny Zhurnal” [RUS], Vladimir Korsunsky, editor-in-chief of Grani.ru, commented on the situation:

«Грани.Ру» проводят настолько взвешенную и сбалансированную информационную политику, что более сбалансированная — это будет уже неприлично. Непонятно, на что похожа вся эта история. Сначала они вообще хотели неформально с нами пообщаться — встретиться и поговорить. О чем — непонятно. Поэтому пришлось им сказать «нет». Мы же не друзья. Если у них есть к нам дело, пусть обращаются официально, мы будем официально отвечать. Я глубоко убежден, что такие контакты должны происходить строго в рамках закона. Невозможно вести с оперативным работником разговор по душам. Тем более что он не говорит, чего он хочет. Вполне возможно, что он ищет: а вдруг ты что-то такое скажешь в разговоре, за что он зацепится и начнет: «А, вот зачем я тебя проверяю!» Пусть сам нам скажет.

“Grani.ru” is conducting very weighted and balanced information policy. If we would conduct even more balanced policy – it would be inappropriate. It's still unclear what this situation is about. At first, they wanted to meet with us and speak with us informally. Just meet and talk. About what – we don't know. This is why we had to refuse. We're not friends. If they have something to us, they should write to us officially, we will reply. I'm deeply convinced that such contacts should be conducted in the legal framework. It's impossible to chit-chat with a policeman. Especially, when he doesn't tell what he wants. I'm suspecting that he's looking for something like this: you would say something during the conversation, and then he would tell you – “Aha, this is what I'm checking you for!” Let them say what they're looking for by themselves.

Interestingly enough, the online censorship and increasing Internet regulations go along with Medvedev's projects of modernization (like the ambitious Russian “Silicon Valley”). But is it possible to create an innovation-based society without freedom of expression? It looks like authorities think of something good and inspiring at the same time thoughtlessly oppressing and condemning the last providers of independent information.

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