Vienna, June 18 – In Soviet times, intense government censorship meant that many people living in the USSR were forced to rely on rumors, reliable or not, as one of their most important sources of information about things the Communist regime did not want them to know or talk about.
Such rumors, however, typically had a limited impact because they depended on informal, face-to-face contacts. But now, as the Putin regime tightens its control of media reporting, rumors are once again an important source of news for Russians – and now these rumors are being spread more widely and effectively by the Internet.
The dangers of this situation, one that combines an increasingly unfree public media with a still more or less free Internet one, have been very much on public view over the last ten days following clashes many have described as ethnic in the southern Russian city of Stavropol.
In an article posted on Friday, Galina Kozhevnikova, the deputy director of the religious and human rights SOVA Center, pointed to the dangers that are arising from the Kremlin’s failure to allow journalists to cover honestly ethnic and religious clashes, among other things (http://grani.ru/opinion/kozhevnikova/p.123451.html).
Saying that she did not believe that “the situation in Stavropol is in principle different from the situation in an average city of Russia,” Kozhevnikova said that Moscow’s unwillingness to cover problems in the first virtually guaranteed that people would be prepared to believe that there are similar problems elsewhere.
That is something xenophobic Russian nationalists are exploiting, she noted, arguing that “the appetites” of the Movement Against Illegal Immigration are “growing as is growing the inadequacy of the reaction of the mass media” under the control of the central government.
Were the Russian media freer, she suggested, journalists would be able not only to report accurately on what is going on but also to be in a position to make critical distinctions between genuine ethnic clashes and those with other sources and to have the authority to be believed.
But because that is not the case now, xenophobic nationalists like those around DPNI have every reason to believe that their claims will be accepted – simply because they can put stories up on the Internet that at least some more responsible outlets may report without in every case being able to check DPNI claims for accuracy.
That happened last week when DPNI’s Aleksandr Belov picked up a blogger report of ethnic clashes in Omsk (http://www.dpni.org/articles/novosti_dp/2437/). His claims were then disseminated on a number of sites, including several with large numbers of visitors, without being immediately challenged.
But as Kozhevnikova argued and as an article in “Ekspert Online” today (http://www.expert.ru/articles/2007/06/18/kazahi_s_armaturoj/) documents, the Omsk story was in whole or in part dreamed up by the extremist nationalists for their own purposes – propagandizing the notion that Russians are under threat.
Unfortunately, this is far from the only case where reports about supposed clashes the authorities do not respond to or allow to be reported on have surfaced on the Russian Internet. Indeed, in the last week, there was yet another: an unconfirmed report that the Northern nationalists had seized key institutions in Yakutsk.
This report suggested that something called “the United Shamanate of the North” had taken over the Sakha capital as part of its campaign to unite all the peoples of the North into a single entity and combine them with the peoples of Alaska and Canada (http://www.politcensura.ru/stol_cenzora/eho_stavropogi_na_beskrajnem_severe).
Few people are likely to believe this report, given both its provenance – the website involved is known for its provocatory articles – and its fancifulness – it includes an interview with someone identified as “Chukut Kuzhug, the supreme Shaman.” But given how little information comes from Russia’s distant periphery, some may.
And that raises a serious question the Kremlin has been unwilling to confront: Can Russia avoid disaster if its public media are under the control of the government while its Internet is far freer, sometimes irresponsible, but often believed because the former fail to report what is going on or have the authority to counter inaccuracies found in the latter.