Vienna, November 30 – The leaders of many non-Russian republics and predominantly Russian regions across the Russian Federation are taking advantage of the Kremlin’s moves against media outlets linked to the political opposition to attack websites and newspapers whose coverage they do not like.
Three egregious examples of this trend – one in Ingushetia, a second in Tyva, and a third in Chita – have been reported in the last 24 hours alone. But there are undoubtedly many others about which few will learn about in a timely fashion or perhaps at all because of the blanket of silence such closings will throw over much of the country.
Some media rights groups, however, are attempting to keep track of this trend, and there is one hopeful sign: the editors of some outlets the regional authorities have attacked are working hard to publicize what has taken place. And some of their readers have organized protests to try to force the politicians to back down.
In many ways, the worst of these three actions came in Ingushetia, where after months of harassment, including threatening Internet providers who hosted it and hacking it so that visitors were redirected to a pornography site, officials in Nazran have succeeded in closing the Ingushetiya.ru website.
The government there succeeded by sending relatives of the top leaders there to speak to and presumably threaten the father of the owner of the opposition site, and he asked his son to close the site down. In Ingush society, as one participant in this process said, “a father’s word is law,” and now the site presumably will be offline.
That is a tragedy of the first order because this site had provided much of the information outsiders have received about the worsening of conditions in that North Caucasus republic and the sharpening of tensions between its pro-Kremlin leaders and the population (http://www.kavkaz.memo.ru/newstext/news/id/1202541).
The second case, in Tyva, may strike some as unimportant because the journal officials have interfered with is published in Tuvan for rural residents in that republic, has a print run of only 999 copies (the maximum allowed for a publication without official registration), and is completely apolitical.
But the authorities there, also pro-Kremlin, do not like this independent outlet, perhaps fearing that at some future point, it could become political and be turned against them. And consequently, they have taken some unusual steps to interfere with the publication of Ulaachi.
In the latest move, apparently earlier this week, the authorities seized the entire print run out of the taxi that was carrying it in order to prevent the editors from disseminating it, even though there was nothing political – except perhaps the fact that the journal appears in Tuvan rather than Russian.
After the editors raised a commotion about the illegality and injustice of this action, the authorities dumped the entire print run in a muddy street. Half of issue was destroyed, but the “Ulaachi” writers were able to recover the other and take it to their regular readers in the countryside (http://tayga.info/news/25509).
The third case concerned the closure by officials of Regnovosti.ru, an Internet-based news service in Chita apparently because it featured stories about protests there over the continued imprisonment of former Russian oligarch, Mikhail Khodorkovskiy (http://www.caucasustimes.com/article.asp?id=13541).
Chita prosecutors accused that site’s Internet service provider as well as the Siberian Telephone Network of engaging in the distribution of extremist materials as a result. And they were thus pressured to force the news agency in question off line in a manner that did not directly involve the political leaders of that oblast.
The only positive aspects of this media crackdown are that it has shown into sharp relief just how authoritarian and lawless the current Russian government has become and that it has called attention to groups within Russian society who are prepared to protest such official illegality in the media sphere.
An intriguing example of the latter involves an open letter of a group of Russians noting their lack of trust in the official media and protesting moves against the free flow of information on the Internet (http://www.nr2.ru/society/152592.html and, for the text of the letter, http://www.nr2.ru/forums/208934.html).
The outspokenness of these Russians is an encouraging sign even if it has not yet been echoed by Western governments in their reaction to what President Putin is doing -- and even more to what his policies have unleashed in the many parts of the Russian Federation beyond the view of journalists and diplomats in Moscow.