By Yulia Berezovskaja, Director General of Grani.ru, a banned independent online media outlet in Russia
In Russia we have paid dearly, very dearly, for words: penal servitude under the tsars for the distribution of subversive tracts, and years of Soviet labour camps and madhouses for using the underground system of samizdat to pass documents from reader to reader or for telling political jokes.
In this country, now, there are people in power who forged their careers in the KGB through brutal suppression of free speech and ideas. Now deeply implicated in the Ukrainian war, their actions are increasingly shameless and cruel.
Today, for criticism of the Kremlin, support of Ukraine or use of frowned-upon symbols, people are beaten up, killed, carted off in police vans, condemned to administrative arrests and criminal sentences. We see brutal reprisals against journalists, the blocking of web sites, attempts to exert complete control over social media.
While government-run TV channels are busy inciting hatred, independent unwelcome criticism and inconvenient truths and are labelled as ‘hate speech,’ sometimes punishable by law.
The authorities hypocritically refer to the interests of children, who need to be protected from dangerous information: on this pretext anything at all can be banned, from the well-known cartoons deemed to be ‘propaganda’, to Wikipedia articles.
Playing the separatism card in the east of Ukraine, the Kremlin reacts extremely nervously to any attempts to discuss the rights of the Russian regions. A special law has been passed on criminal responsibility for “calls for separatism”. The attempt of a small group of activists to conduct a “March for the federalisation of Siberia” resulted in large-scale censorship of websites. A female activist landed in prison for a similar initiative in the Kuban region.
The publicist Boris Stomakhin is serving his second prison camp term for internet articles criticizing what he called Putin’s imperial policies. He was found guilty of calls to terrorism.
A punishable criminal offence has been introduced for straying from the official interpretation of the history of WWII.
The legislature has long been churning out one mad law after another, while the feverish activity of the police, public prosecutors and others has gone to dizzying heights of absurdity. An unenforceable law on the state registration of popular bloggers has been passed, and there is constant pressure on ordinary internet users. People may be called for questioning about comments they have left, or for re-posting or even tagging videos.
Journalistic projects are now moving abroad: the fired Editor in Chief of Lenta.Ru is launching a news website in the Latvian capital Riga for a Russian audience; users are learning how to restore access to blocked content (including to our site, Grani.Ru), and striking examples of political art and art-activism are appearing.
Grani.Ru, has already been blocked for six months in Russia for “calls for participation in unsanctioned mass events”: this is how the prosecutor’s office qualifies our reports about street pickets in support of political prisoners.
We are continuing to publish material at the same rate, to constantly launch new mirror sites for Russian readers and to broaden our presence on social media.
The response of Roscomnadzor, the Russian media regulator, has been to blacklist more than 40 of our mirror sites. And while we have lost all our legal cases on website-blocking in Russia, we have not lost our audience. We are continuing to resist; to get our work out. It is important to us to preserve Grani as a platform for free discussion and a symbol of civil resistance. Our experience circumventing the censorship will also be useful for other blocked internet projects.
We will do our utmost to ensure that the voices of free Russia will continue to be heard.
Despite the rapidly shrinking space for freedom of expression, many people in Russia are speaking out. Between 6 and 12 October Amnesty International activists stand with them in solidarity during a week of action to make sure Russia’s leaders know that the rest of the world will not be silent. Take action and find out more on www.amnesty.org/Speak-Out-Russia
This blog was originally published by Radio Free Europe.