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Russia: Phone Hacking Case Unites Opposition

This post is part of our special coverage Russia Elections 2011.

The leaking of private phone conversations of a prominent Russian opposition leader to the media has given rise to many issues and left a lot of questions unanswered. Boris Nemtsov, the prominent leader of the Solidarnost opposition group and former deputy prime minister, sounds extremely rude when he talks on the phone. He curses a lot, insults his fellow opposition members and supporters, uses derogatory expressions toward women and belittles anti-Kremlin protesters.

His hacked phone conversations released by LifeNews.ru [ru], an online news tabloid affiliated with the Kremlin, have been widely covered by media in and outside of Russia (see a BBC article and The Moscow Times piece on the issue) and wreaked havoc on the Russian Internet.

No cells. Photo by SXC user mzacha

No cells. Photo by SXC user mzacha

Not journalism, but something else

Coming soon after the widely discussed “election day DDoS-alypse” [Distributed Denial of Service], the phone tapping issue has attracted the attention of many prominent members of the Russian political elite. Many have rushed to express their thoughts on the subject.

Predictably enough, government-affiliated politicians and media practitioners supported the decision to publish the taped conversations, whereas the members of opposition have condemned it.

Few bloggers have doubts that the government is behind this. Prominent blogger and publicist Andrey Malgin, for example, wrote [ru]:

Откуда “в распоряжении редакции оказалась” (так они формулируют) запись телефонных разговоров Немцова и других деятелей оппозиции, нетрудно догадаться, если вспомнить недавнюю историю, когда за день до пресловутых ” парламентских выборов” на шереметьевской таможне изъяли ноутбук руководителя общественной организации “Голос”, а через пару дней файлы из этого ноутбука были опубликованы в том же самом СМИ.

It is not hard to figure out how Nemtsov's and other opposition activists’ phone conversations became “available to the editorial team” (that is how they call it). If you remember, just a day before the notorious “parliamentary elections,” customs officers in Sheremetyevo [international airport in Moscow] confiscated the laptop of a director of the civic organization “Golos” [an organization that aims to protect the electoral rights of citizens] and after a couple of days, the files from that laptop were published in the same medium [Life News].

Sergey Mitrokin, chairman of the opposition party Yabloko, said [ru] that “proslushka” (phone tapping) in Russia is not only about politics, but also about business:

По закону она возможна только по решению суда. Но проверять, есть ли судебное решение, должны сами правоохранители, которые и являются «слушателями». Проверка самих себя – это одна из самых распространенных «кормушек» в нашем законодательстве.

According to the law, it [phone tapping] is possible only with the court's permission. National security authorities are responsible for checking if the court's permission exists. But they themselves are the one who are the “listeners.” Checking everyone is the most widespread “feeder” in our legislation.

The issue attracted attention to the fact that phone tapping is a harsh reality in the country. Bloggers recollected that the similar scandals in the West (for example, the recent one with British News of the World tabloid) resulted in the sacking of many people including government officials and the closure of the newspaper.

Journalist Yuri Pronko expressed his outrage [ru] with the way Life News staff handled the information:

Руководители портала заявляют, что готовы ответить, но “как профессиональные журналисты” не откроют источники информации – такое впечатление, что кто-то имеет сомнения, откуда редакция эти прослушки получила. Особенно после того, как эту деликатную информацию начали тиражировать государственные СМИ и даже «Милицейская волна». Скажу одно, это не журналистика, а нечто другое. Непотребное, мерзкое, отвратительное по своей сути.

The portal's managers say they are ready to answer but they cannot reveal their sources “as professional journalists.” As if someone has doubts about where the editorial team received the recordings. Especially after government media and even “Police wave” [a radio station] started to promote this information. I will say one thing, it is not journalism but something else. Obscene, disgusting, repulsive in its essence.

Many other bloggers also condemned Life News’ decision to publish the conversation, noting that intruding into the private life of a person (even a politician) is dirty tactics.

“They live in your sockets”

Another camp of bloggers argued that Nemtsov should have been more careful in his expressions while talking on the phone. Former director of Radio Liberty's Russian service, Kseniya Larina, wrote [ru] on her blog:

Дорогой Boris Nemtsov, Боря! Ну ты же давно живешь на свете, ты же знаешь , что они живут в твоих розетках, фене,электробритве и мусорном ведре) впрочем, вся эта история поучительна для тех, кто родился позже – теперь они знают, как это происходит.

Dear Boris Nemtsov, Borya! You have been living in this world for a long time and you know that they [state security services] live in your sockets, hair dryer, electric razor and trash bin) after all, this story is enlightening for all who were born later – now they know how it is done.

Dmitry Rogozin, Russia's ambassador to NATO, wrote [ru] on his Twitter account:

Любой политик должен понимать: он находится в центре общественного внимания и не может рассчитывать на тайну личной жизни и политпереписки

Every politician should understand that he is in the center of public opinion and he cannot count on privacy in his life or political correspondence.

Margarita Simonyan, an editor-in-chief of pro-Kremlin international TV channel Russia Today echoes [ru] Rogozin:

Инфа о ПУБЛИЧНОЙ деятельности ПУБЛИЧНЫХ людей, касающаяся жизни общества, должна быть ПУБЛИЧНОЙ. И ее надо слушать и знать.

Info about PUBLIC activities of PUBLIC people related to the life of society should be PUBLIC. We need to listed to it and know about it.

United more than ever

Whatever their opinion on the subject, both camps would probably agree that the released recordings had the potential to discredit Nemtsov and split and weaken the opposition. But some observers have noted that the results may be different from what they could have been if the Internet did not exist.

With its obvious advantage of communication with different audiences in real time, the blogosphere has provided millions of Russian with an opportunity to see the reaction of Nemtsov's fellow activists without any edits or distortions. The vast majority of opposition leaders immediately pointed out that Nemtsov's private conversations gone public is nothing more than a provocation from anti-opposition forces. Almost no one picked a fight with Nemtsov himself.

“Personal frictions and ambitions don't matter here,” activist Ilya Ponomarev wrote [ru] on his blog. “We are solving the common problem.”

Another prominent activist Evgeniya Chirikova who was called bad names in Nemtsov's hacked conversations, posted [ru] on her Twitter: “The PCaT [Party of Crooks and Thieves, nickname for pro-Kremlin United Russia party] tries to distract us from the fight against them. We won't give in. And we will come to the meeting on December 24.”

United opposition leaders who are putting their private opinions aside for a common cause, is the message coming out of their various blogs and Twitter feeds. Obviously, something like this would be impossible to convene to the public through the usual government-controlled traditional media channels.

What seems to be bothering people most, is the fact that phones do get hacked and private conversations do get recorded. As Evgeniya Chirikova wisely noted, “sometimes the methods discredit much more than that obtained with those methods.”

This post is part of our special coverage Russia Elections 2011.

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