Russia: “Web of Justice”

The Court House - Figure of Justice, photo by Elliott Brown

The Court House – Figure of Justice, photo by Elliott Brown

Last week, Russia's foreign broadcaster – Russia Today TV (RT) – ran a report about Russian bloggers and how they, heroically, expose crimes and corruption in the system. Here are some excerpts from the related article posted online:

Desktops, laptops, phones and PDAs…. Internet in Russia is rapidly becoming much more available, and much more than just entertainment. For many, it has turned into a virtual speaker's corner, where their voice will not only be heard, but is guaranteed to echo across the country within hours.

There are vocal examples of how Internet users can help solve complicated problems. In one instance, a video of a man posted online led to his dismissal. The man, who was the head of the local government, was bullying children at school but remained unpunished until the video went viral.

Analysis followed:

“This doesn't mean that journalists are bad, and bloggers are better,” stressed Sergey Dorenko, editor in chief of Russian News Service. “Or that the only notion of free speech exists online. It's simply a matter of choice. We no longer want to watch someone else's rundown, we want to – and can – make our own. The Internet allows us to choose what we want to know about, at a speed print or TV media simply cannot compete with.

But then, there was this:

In another instance, one blogger managed to reach Russian president Dmitry Medvedev in order to help an orphan, Pasha Berezin. A master chess player, a math genius and guaranteed state benefits, Pasha is missing the start of the academic year due to the demands of a construction company that helps fund the school. “I want to be an IT specialist,” the boy told RT. “But the school said that if I want to study here and live in the residence halls, I have to study to be a builder.” Pasha's case was taken on by a charity organization, Murzik.

Its founder, German Pyatov, says what made a difference to his case was a message he posted online to the president. “After I posted my letter, someone from the president's office called and asked for details about this case,” Pyatov said. “I know they got in touch with Pasha's college, because almost immediately afterward, the college called and told Pasha to withdraw his application and basically get the hell out. They were scared that the authorities got involved. Then the media picked up the story, and the college was forced to stop its unlawful actions. They now allow Pasha to attend lectures, but still refuse to give him a room.”

This story was broadcast on September 20. The following day, another report about the great potential of the Russian blogosphere appeared on Russia Beyond the Headlines (online and print, in cooperation with several prominent foreign newspapers):

Opposition politics in Russia have become less about political figures or parties, and more about grassroots issues: Witness the car protests or the grassroots campaign against police corruption. The trickle-up effect (from blogosphere to mainstream media) is especially significant, as it shows how bloggers move further away from being the preserve of an urban, well-connected elite.

Seeing such reports, one cannot help but consider the source: both of these outlets are state-owned and are produced, primarily, in English, with the objective of “helping foreigners better understand Russia.” With this in mind, it seems such stories would serve Russia's public diplomacy well, especially given President Medvedev's attempts to demonstrate to the world that Russia can be en par with the West in terms of technological progress, as well as the social and economic transformations that accompany it.

Yet, Russian Internet freedom also seems to be a paradox that has caught the attention of many, lately. Earlier this month, Tangled Web tried addressing Russia's “virtual democracy”, referring to a recent report by the U.S. Institute of Peace – Blogs and Bullets – on the power of the new media:

From the outset, the report makes the point that the impact of new media on democracy is still unclear, as much of the evidence is still fragmentary and anecdotal. But one sentence, in the section on how new media can affect individuals, stuck with me: “new media could make citizens more passive, by leading them to confuse online rhetoric with substantial political action, diverting their attention away from productive activities.”

Cyberspace is remarkably free in Russia, especially compared with state-dominated broadcast and print media. And there is a lot of good grass-roots activism on the web in Russia. But rather than the Internet being democracy’s enabler, it could also be one of its biggest loopholes, allowing a parallel discourse and parallel process, one that’s lively and diverse, but ultimately a sham.

Here, one cannot but mention the 2010 report by OpenNet Initiative, whose Country Profile on Russia reads:

The absence of overt state-mandated Internet filtering in Russia has led some observers to conclude that the Russian Internet represents an open and uncontested space. In fact, the opposite is true. The Russian government actively competes in Russian cyberspace employing second- and third-generation strategies as a means to shape the national information space and promote pro-government political messages and strategies. This approach is consistent with the government’s strategic view of cyberspace that is articulated in strategies such as the doctrine of information security.

You can read more about these “alternative approaches” to Internet “management” in a separate chapter of the report, dedicated to the Russian cyberspace. In essence, however, they represent inconspicuous and, perhaps even, covert measures, that do not necessarily limit broader freedoms – to give a general sense of calm (i.e. there are no “firewalls” or certain website bans) – while taking over in instances where allowing too much freedom can have serious repercussions.

There were several other “news” pieces dealing with the issue, which are worthy of note:

- The Guardian had an optimistic article about “Russia's blogging revolution,” while pointing out examples of how it can, as well, be exploited by those in power for their own interests.

- The New York Times had a special video segment on the potential of Internet activism, and some of its possible consequences in Russia.

- The very same Russia Today TV ran a story about a failed attempt by a court in Far Eastern city of Komsomolsk-on-Amur to block YouTube. That follows the much-discussed “new experiment” by the Kremlin: opening up the newly proposed Police reform bill for public review, online.

These, perhaps, do demonstrate signs of progress, which, most certainly, cannot be expected to arrive overnight. Nevertheless, they might as well be examples of what the Tangled Web referred to as “an old strand of thought in Russia, where the tsar was fundamentally decent and it was the corrupt mid-level officials who were to blame for everything.”

It should be mentioned, however, that democracy – real or virtual – proves itself, time and again, as being very relative. When even some of the more prominent Western democracies have major issues with Internet access and surveillance, perhaps Russia should not be judged as strictly? But then, why not, if the country has set that objective for itself?

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