Russia: Attack Survivor Journalist Oleg Kashin on Internet Freedom

Oleg Kashin, special correspondent for the newspaper Kommersant and well-known blogger, was brutally beaten near his home in November 2010 [ru]. A video recording of the attack was subsequently published on the Internet [ru].

President Medvedev tweeted about the incident and said that the criminals should be found and punished. Important accounts of this attack on Kashin were described on Global Voices by Alexey Sidorenko.

In December, 2010 Kashin published an article “A beating on my beat” in the New York Times. He took part in an international conference beginning the same day as World Press Freedom Day, where he spoke to Global Voices (GV).


Oleg Kashin. Image by Gregory Asmolov (CC BY-NC 2.0).

Oleg Kashin. Image by Gregory Asmolov (CC BY-NC 2.0).

Global Voices (GV): Oleg, as a blogger and well-known journalist, to what extent do you make a connection between your attack and with attempts to limit the freedom of the Russian Internet?

Oleg Kashin (OK): It was said in a Freedom House report that the attack on myself was an attack against a blogger. I absolutely do not share this opinion; if you are a practising journalist then you work round the clock, in whatever capacity. Yesterday we were at the celebrations near the White House [this interview was conducted in Washington on the following day after the killing of Bin Laden] and I uploaded a video to YouTube. In what capacity did I upload it – as a journalist or as a blogger? As a journalist, I believe, and only because Moscow, and indeed the editors were sleeping. A quick response is important and so I can upload a video to YouTube, still as a journalist, and then, taking my time I can write an article for the newspaper.

And it's just that blogging being ‘separate’ is an illusion, because professional bloggers – as they call themselves – are people who acquire ‘friends’ and readers (not necessarily through honest methods) and earn money on pushing hidden ads. They're not respected by the community. Because a person who earns money by posting some paid links in the blog is a second class person for those who earn money elsewhere and use blog as a form of communication and socialization, at least non-commercial one.

We have a lot of bloggers, and some are anonymous, who often curse, offend and so on. But, when their status as a blogger is confirmed to be a journalist with Kommersant, then the name journalist becomes of the utmost importance.

GV: How would you characterise the degree of freedom in the Russian Internet and what threats exist to this freedom?

OK: My favourite example is the recent story about a blogger from the Oryol region. In a demonstration in Triumph Square in Moscow a person came out with the the placard ‘Putin – Pidoras’ [a pejorative name for male homosexual]. The Moscow blogger Norvezhsky Lesnoy (Norwegian Forest Cat) photographed him, then a blogger, Georgiy Sarkiyan, from Oryol who wasn't at the scene of the event and on the whole bears no relation to the story, reposted the photo and the Oryol Prosecutor's office stirred up a case against him. [You can read about a similar story here which took place in the Komi Republic].

This type of occurrence where local channels of law and order enact repression against bloggers is fairly commonplace. This case and that of Irek Murtazin, who wrote about the death of Shaimiev [President of the Tartastan Republic at the time and who wasn't actually dead] and was convicted in Tartastan, and lastly there is Savva Terentyev, who wrote about the police as “disloyal cops”. He didn't manage to post it during an anti-militia campaign, otherwise he would have become a mainstream favourite on the newscast “Vremya” (Time).

On the ground, as a rule, it's crazy and you see some comic situations like the one in Komsomolsk-on-Amur where a court banned YouTube. But, this, whatever it is, is an example of many different Russias. Even now, however, imagining that Anton Nossik [popular Russian blogger] would be taken to the police for a comment on a blog is almost impossible. Nossik could rather appear in a meeting with Medvedev, than in a police department.

And since bad leadership/corruption starts at the top it also democratizes from the top, and the very fact that Medvedev is an active blogger has led to blogs becoming practically a government mission. Now the process is just beginning, there's still another generation that has yet to come to power, and then the blogosphere will become a valid representation of the society. It's possible to observe this already; for example, half of the governors, albeit scattered about here and there, have their own blog.

GV: Do you consider the negative reaction to this, as brought about by Freedom House qualifying the attack against you as a manifestation of limited Internet freedoms and an attack targeted against a blogger?

OK: It's more ironic because I don't perceive this as an attack against a blogger, rather against a journalist. But as regarding the question about Freedom House, it is absolutely beyond question/dispute that the DDoS [Distributed Denial of Service] attacks have been going on for a number of years, yet to both the mass media and to blog platforms. Recent examples include the weeks of the LiveJournal (LJ) crashes and the rather sensational story with the Estonian Embassy. This type of cybercrime, veiled by the government, is a more “far-sighted” way of putting pressure on freedom of speech on the Internet. In principle, the government already had taste for this and Medvedev's statement saying the government has no relation to this, is testimony to the fact that he follows his own establishment badly.

GV: And talking about the DDoS attack, who, in your opinion, was behind it?

OK: We have a documented case when a perpetrator of a DDOS attack confirmed his agency. This attack on the Estonian Embassy from three years ago, was made public when a “commissar” of the youth movement Nashi, Constantin Goloskokov declared his role in the attack to the newspaper Kommersant. It's good that for once people confessed.  But when you look at those who was exposed to the attack, then it's the very people the youth organisation name as the enemies of Russia: Kommersant, LJ, Limonov's party [National Bolshevik Party] etc.

Therefore, I don't share the opinion that whoever stands behind these attacks are unknown hooligans who are impossible to catch. We should bear in mind the situation when a hacker uploaded pornography to a publicity screen in the Garden Ring. This hacker was caught in two days. I think that if the government really wanted to find the perpetrators of the DDoS attack then they would have done it. However, it appears they don't.

GV: You actively use Twitter, Facebook, YouTube and you write as well. How do you find time for everything? And how do you divide tasks between platforms? Is blogging a support to your journalistic activities?

OK: I remember how in 2005 my LJ blog was my personal blog and my editors at Kommersant constantly said to me: “How long can you sit on LJ? Better write another op-ed. That's enough time spent on nonsense!” The following year, if not two, they made us start keeping blogs on the Kommersant website and essentially encouraged us to keep a LJ. Blogs were then recognised and it was good though it was reminiscent of something from a series: ‘When I was a mod in my youth, they made me cut my hair, when I had grown old and wanted to wear a suit, they force you to be a mod”.

Now I'm more comfortable on Twitter but Twitter is still not very understood in our editing team and by most of the media. In terms of Twitter, right off the bat I can only think of (@lentaruofficial), who have a sufficiently active Twitter account out of the principal media sources, but there is no one else. I think that right now we're going through a transitional period but it will take two or three years and then Twitter will be like potatoes planted under the Catherine the Great [Translator's note: Potatoes were cultivated in huge numbers during Catherine the Great's reign].

GV: And how do you define LJ for yourself; as journalistic or personal space?

OK: LJ is definitely a journalistic space. It's a source of information about youth movements, protests and so on and now I wouldn't write something like “Hey guys, I'm in love” on LJ. I'd write this on Facebook where only people I know personally are.

As far as Twitter is concerned, it's literally “information fast food” when you don't have time to verify information. I myself have more than once been sold by a fictional statement from Twitter-Lifenews, once about the death of Lyudmila Gurchenko [a famous Russian actress], two months before her death. Arkady Dvorkovich [assistant to the president of Russian federation] and I both retweeted this statement of her death and later we both apologised. And as a reader of Twitter I understand that you need to check for potential inconsistencies and excessive haste. But in these fast paced times of our lives Twitter is the most efficient tool available today.

GV: What is the role of the Internet in the coverage of your attack? Do you consider it important?

OK: I could only follow it after the fact, since I was unconscious. If you trace the series of events then the first piece of information about an attack against me appeared in LJ courtesy of my neighbour Lena Pogrebezhko. She wrote about it and my friends read it. One of my friends sent a text to my chief editor and a movement began later thanks, explicitly, to social networks as opposed to the police or ambulance services.

In the morning, the attack on Twitter went by the hashtagKashin” [#KSHN] and people got together to picket outside 38 Petrovka street [address of police headquarters]. These were actions taken by bloggers. Later there was a protest in support of me and other attacked journalists. This was definitely a nonparty act where people weren't from a specific organisation but namely from ‘virtual reality’ on the square. I should also mention that this is worth considering a precedent.

And indeed, from the photo documentation from the scenes I realised that I'm seeing photographs of people whom I know, even if I don't know them personally, they are all my friends, my group of friends from LJ and Facebook. If it hadn't been for the Internet the same after effects wouldn't have taken place. And, even Medvedev wrote about it on Twitter, instead of making an official statement.

GV: Do the people who know your LJ have a more personal relationship with you?

OK: Yes, of course. In fact I played this out earlier, consciously shaping my image, that's to say not just making do with the fact I work for a newspaper. I wanted to build my image, “self promotion” as it was accepted to talk about then. It is obvious that this worked as by the time of the attack happened they really knew me. And, those who knew me, took part in all this action!

GV: When did you first see the video of your attack?

OK: I was in the hospital two weeks after and I  think someone brought me a computer. It was hard to watch. Whatever.

GV: How do you feel about the recording of your attack being published on the Internet. Are you against this?

OK: I literally visited my own funeral and observed the graveside orations while being alive. Because of this when a person dies they often say “if such and such were alive, he would”. And, so there were two moments when my friends were speaking about me in such a tone and both times they were right.

Once when they said that if Oleg was with us he would also be against granting journalists a special status [one of the reactions to Kashin's assault was to introduce special punishment for attacks on journalists]. They proposed bringing in an amendment to the law meaning that an attack on a journalist is an attack on a representative of society. And secondly, that if Oleg had had to decide whether to show this video he would have done it, of course. And, in fact I would have.

This type of thing has already repeatedly been a occurrence on Life News, it's a “LifeNews Factor” [Life News – an aggressive yet successful online tabloid]. Given the scorn for tabloid methods of publishing it's necessary to recognize their role. There has been, at least, another similar episode. This one, grateful for the fact that the murder of people by the Major Yevsyukov was recorded on camera, a recording which was subsequently bought and shown by LifeNews, the crime brought about huge impact.

If there had have been  just a written account in the news about a policeman killing three people then nobody would have noticed because you can read a daily report of this type of crime every day. But when you can see, in graphic detail, how they kill, it's a whole other matter and in my opinion that's something you can't argue with.

GV: Would you allow us to ask you which of the versions which have been voiced about the attack you consider to have the most truth?

OK: The court proceedings for my case are ongoing. The leader of Nashi, Vasiliy Yakemenko presented in court about my blog entry in which I wrote that I don't doubt the version which I call Yakemenko-version, or in other words the version with the participation of pro-Kremlin youth movements in the attack against me. If it were taken generally then I've been writing about this matter for ten years and there are many cases where forceful actions have been taken against journalists and chances are this movement was behind them.

It is not even a case of ‘chances are,’ but rather ‘certain’ because there is a documented evidence which proves two members of Nashi were amongst the aggressors with baseball bats on members of the National Bolshevik Party near the Avtozavodskaya Metro station. Chances are that although this were anonymous acts, these youth movements are behind the acts against the journalists Mikhail Fishman, Shenderovich and so on. In other words, if something looks like Yakemenko, sounds like Yakemenko then it is Yakemenko.

Therefore I'm counting on this court just as I am on public version of the investigation, which is going too slowly anyway. In fact, they shed light on the acts of terror in Domodedovo airport, solved the kidnapping of Kaspersky's son, killed Bin Laden, and that it's just my crime hasn't been solved, and in my opinion that's not good.

GV: In your opinion will the role of the Internet grow, in terms of participation, during the upcoming elections?

OK: My colleague conducted a small bit of research on how to lead a pre-election campaign on the Internet. According to what he's told me (I haven't checked but I gladly trust him), this year we won't see activity on LJ like we saw in 2007 when people were paid to a picture of Putin as their avatar. It's obvious that this year the main centre of activity of the United Russia will take place in social networks, primarily in Vkontakte [a Russian social network similar to Facebook] .

This is because it is the most popular network. This is due to it being used more for video hosting than a social network but nevertheless millions of young people use it. There are also groups created in support of Putin and Medvedev, except that in my opinion they are created by some people who later plan to sell them and apparently they will be bought. Obviously the Internet has significantly more meaning than it did four years ago. But what was different about that period, when propaganda on the Internet was directed at the intellectual elite, the media and so on but now it can be directed at the masses because they are already connected up to the Internet.

GV: But on the other hand, you don't foresee an Internet revolution like the one which took place in Egypt?

OK: Navalny [well known Russian blogger] talks about the fact that in Yale University he studied with a Tunisian member of the opposition who he had the impression was a totally unimpressive outcast, but who later became a minister in Tunisia, something which surprised everyone, even Navalny.

I'll look at Navalny and at some of the lesser noticed people of this genre, for example at Yekaterinburg's Deputy Leonid Volkov [LJ username leonwolf] who is in relation to his peers, a small Navalny from Yekaterinburg who has managed to become a deputy, having pushed for a fight against corruption. It might not be a revolution but serious influence on the Russian powers-that-be is not only possible but is already taking place.

At least, the expression of “a party of thieves and swindlers” is already firmly associated with United Russia, even amongst people who aren't familiar with Navalny. Judging by taxi drivers it's already a meme. Therefore the process has already begun. So, I'm saying that what will happen in the 2018 presidential election doesn't have any relevance. It doesn't matter what happens, these formal cycles are now meaningless. Now, in fact, now, almost everything happens on the Internet.

GV: The cycles are meaningless because?

OK: Because real life doesn't take place in these formal electoral cycles, but you can literally see real life in Navalny's blog. If five years ago Yandex had handed the FSB [Federal Security Service] some sort of data, I think the person whose data was given would have just quietly moaned to himself on LJ. Now, when Yandex hands over data of its paying customers, Navalny turns it into breaking news and Navalny himself becomes a political factor.

GV: Who is behind the campaign against Navalny in this case?

OK: Behind the campaign against him, are of course, people in power but now we've found out that the FSB is a part in this. If the authorities are seriously fighting the people who have come out of the Internet this means that it really has become a political factor.

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