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Moscow’s New Rules for Newspapers

Adam Federman has an excellent piece in the Columbia Journalism Review on the state of the Russian press, and the informal set of rules journalists must navigate to avoid the wrath of the Kremlin and their wealthy friends. As the Times recently noted, the atmosphere for political dissent on Russian TV has been so bad for so long that Russian political TV stars have had to flee to neighboring Ukraine to find work, leaving radio stations like Echo Moskvyi, newspapers and Internet publications to pick up the slack.

While it is difficult to underestimate the chilling effects of the assasination of journalists on political reporting (four from Novoya Gazeta alone have been killed), Federman found a number of Russians willing to navigate the maze of political and financial red lines that if crossed can lead to the end of their careers, or even their lives, in pursuit of hard hitting stories on corruption and critical analysis of the government. As one western reporter who covers Russia told Federman: “For every journalist who gets killed there must be twenty who decide that they’re not going to write the story that they might have written.” But, as Federman writes, there is some room left for optimism:

[L]ately the faint outlines of a new paradigm seem to be emerging. Several independent magazines and newspapers, including Newsweek, Forbes, The New Times, Vedomosti, and Novaya Gazeta, have survived longer than might have been expected given the circumstances. And they usually publish what they want, free of interference from the state. At the same time, Russia’s president, Dmitry Medvedev, has made a point of reaching out to critics, even granting Novaya Gazeta the first full-length interview of his presidency, an unimaginable gesture under Putin.

“We live on islands in Russia,” Maxim Trudolyubov, the opinion-page editor of Vedomostitells me in a quiet café not far from the subway entrance where Markelov and Baburova were shot last January. He’s referring to the large body of state-controlled media—what he calls a continent—and the small handful of independent newspapers and magazines that publish freely. Last June, Vedomosti launched an investigative desk, headed by Irina Reznik, a leading expert on Gazprom, who writes frequently about Putin’s circle of friends. “If you do it the right way, usually you can do it and get away with it,” Trudolyubov says.

And even though it’s reach is still quite limited, the Internet has provided another inexpensive route for quality journalism (and, as we’ve noted here before, Internet penetration is expanding rapidly).

[S]everal Russian Web sites have become increasingly important as both sources of information and public forums. and are the pet projects of Vladimir Gusinsky and Boris Berezovsky, respectively, exiled oligarchs and media moguls who were early casualties of the Putin era. According to a 2008 Reuters Institute report on the Web in Russia, both sites “carry generally reliable and often critical information and comment.” Meanwhile, other large news sites—including and the liberal-leaning—have expanded their presence.

For now the Web is a largely unregulated and open space. In 2007, when the FSB unofficially tried to force Moscow Internet providers to block access to a host of Web sites, including, a political news site founded by Garry Kasparov, the chess legend, only a handful acquiesced. Oleg Panfilov, director of Moscow’s Center for Journalism in Extreme Situations, who is working on a study of the Internet and freedom of speech in Russia, says that even though the authorities are starting to use legal measures, such as a relatively new law against extremism, to intimidate and even silence bloggers, it is too late for them to turn the Web into a kind of state-run media monopoly. “It is technically impossible to control the Internet in Russia,” he told me. Unlike China, Panfilov says, Internet service providers in Russia are privately owned, and have largely resisted efforts on the part of the state to manipulate content.

I think our different research platforms here at Berkman will be able to tell us a great deal about just how different the stories in these ‘islands of freedom,’ especially those online, are from media outlets controlled by those close to the Kremlin, but in the mean time this piece is well worth the read for its qualitative take on the state of newspapers and independent journalism in Russia.

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Kremlin Tells Governors to Blog, or Pack their Bags

The Russian daily Nezavisimaya Gazeta reports that the Kremlin, worried about the waning influence of official mass media in the regions, has told regional governors to become active bloggers and participants in online social networks, or risk losing their posts. The article further explains that the governors’ Internet activities will become one of the criteria by which their effectiveness will be judged, and that those who do not perform well will be weeded out.

According Nezavisimaya Gazeta (my rough translation):

In the Kremlin…there is a fear that in the not too distant future, the use of virtual technologies, including blogs and social networks, will be used not only to form relations to the representatives of the ruling class, but also will have a real effect on the outcome of voting in elections.

The push is also part of a plan to expand broadband access to the regions, and it is expected that this will allow for both commercial and political development in the regions.

The governors will likely have a steep learning curve, since only three of the governors of Russia’s 89 regions currently have a blog–but the Kremlin says they have a good example to follow in President Medvedev.

Paul Gobel wonders if this will have unintended consequences–especially if Governors are allowed to speak freely about their priorities:

…this latest Kremlin drive may have some interesting consequences both for Russia and for those who study that country. For Russia, such an increase in largely uncontrolled media outlets almost certainly will lead to the expression of a greater range of opinions, even if those maintaining these blogs do not intend that.

And for those who study Russia, the rise of such blogs will require a new research approach, one that will increasingly have to track not just what is in the official or semi-official print and electronic media but also what senior officials and politicians are saying in this most febrile of media.

We’ll be all over this as part of our blog research if it pans out, but I personally doubt that the governors will be especially gifted bloggers, or that they will stray very far from the party line.

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Google Threatens to Pull Out of China, Cites Censorship and Cyberattacks

A bombshell out of Google today as they threaten to leave the very lucrative Chinese market entirely due to recent cyberattacks on human rights activists, Google itself, and a range of corporate and financial targets. Naturally, the news itself has been censored in China. From the Official Google Blog:

In mid-December, we detected a highly sophisticated and targeted attack on our corporate infrastructure originating from China that resulted in the theft of intellectual property from Google. However, it soon became clear that what at first appeared to be solely a security incident–albeit a significant one–was something quite different.

First, this attack was not just on Google. As part of our investigation we have discovered that at least twenty other large companies from a wide range of businesses–including the Internet, finance, technology, media and chemical sectors–have been similarly targeted. We are currently in the process of notifying those companies, and we are also working with the relevant U.S. authorities.

However, while a number of corporations were attacked, Google believes that the real goal was to attack human rights activists critical of China, albeit unsuccessfully:

[W]e have evidence to suggest that a primary goal of the attackers was accessing the Gmail accounts of Chinese human rights activists. Based on our investigation to date we believe their attack did not achieve that objective. Only two Gmail accounts appear to have been accessed, and that activity was limited to account information (such as the date the account was created) and subject line, rather than the content of emails themselves.

Third, as part of this investigation but independent of the attack on Google, we have discovered that the accounts of dozens of U.S.-, China- and Europe-based Gmail users who are advocates of human rights in China appear to have been routinely accessed by third parties. These accounts have not been accessed through any security breach at Google, but most likely via phishing scams or malware placed on the users’ computers.

At the core of the decision to contemplate leaving China, according to Google, is their long internal struggle about how to access the huge Chinese market while living up to their corporate moto to ‘not be evil.’ This is pretty hard to do in what the OpenNet Initiative calls one of the most pervasive filtering systems in the world, which Google had to be a part of by prohibiting searches and access to a range of content the Chinese regime did not like. Former Berkman Fellow Rebecca MacKinnon told the Times today that “Google had endured repeated harassment in recent months and that by having operations in China it potentially risked the security of its users in China.” And as our own Jonathan Zittrain said in the same article:

‘I think it’s both the right move and a brilliant one’ said Jonathan Zittrain, a legal scholar at Harvard’s Berkman Center for Internet and Society.

It seems unlikely that the decision was based on human rights concerns alone, but I imagine that rights concerns taken together with the costs in bad PR, cyberattacks, and having to retreat from their own corporate mission are now outweighed by the relative small profits they make in China. The latest attack may simply have been the straw that broke the camel’s back.

Charges Dropped Against Russian Blogger

The opposition Web site Other Russia reports that the case against Russian blogger Dmitri Solovyov has been closed due to a lack of evidence. Solovyov is a blogger with the opposition youth movement Oborona. According to Radio Free Europe Solovyov was charged under Article 282 of the Russian Criminal Code with “inciting hatred and humiliating the human dignity of individual social groups” for his criticism the police and the Federal Security Service, or FSB, who he said killed children and would not be able to break up the Oborona movement. Two groups of linguists determined that he did not use extremist language in his blog posts, which apparently led to the closure of the case.

According to the Oborona movement’s blog (my quick translation):

This idiotic and absurd affair dragged on for nearly a year and half, but in the end common sense prevailed – with Dmitri acquitted and everything that was seized during [police] searches returned.

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