Baku, May 5 – The current drive by Ingushetia President Murat Zyazikov to shut down an independent website there through the use of the Soviet-era practice of legal analogy and a post-Soviet Russian pattern of defining almost any criticism of officials as extremism, will, if it proves successful, likely be a model for a Moscow drive to rein in the last free media space there.
As Yuri Gladysh pointed out in a commentary posted on the Sobkorr.ru portal yesterday, Zyazikov and his backers have trampled on the provisions of Russian media law by arguing as that legislation specifically does not that a web site by “positioning itself” as a media outlet can be treated as the other media are (www.sobkorr.ru/news/481D836CC9DF3.html).
And, he noted, the authorities have classified as “extremist” the kind of criticism of official action that would be considered entirely normal almost everywhere else, thus allowing those in power to move against their current critics and thus intimidate anyone else who might be thinking about doing so.
That makes Zyazikov’s moves against his nemesis, Ingushetiya.ru, important both because of the role that site has played in reporting honestly and openly on what officials have been doing in that North Caucasus republic and because of the likelihood that Russian officials elsewhere, including in Moscow, may soon copy what Zyazikov’s regime is doing.
Gladysh’s article came in response to a fine levied on Roza Mal’sagova, the editor of the site, for supposedly violating registration requirements and rules on advertising, requirements and rules that Russian law says do not extend to the Internet, and following reports that Ingushetiya officials plan to open a criminal case against her for slander or extremism.
The latter charge reportedly is based on the appearance on the site of the texts that few who consider extremist or slanderous even in the Russian context, including one that Zyazikov “thinks only about his personal enrichment” rather than his official responsibilities and the good of the Ingush people.
“In fact,” as the Sobkorr.ru commentator said, Zyazikov and his supporters both in the republic and in Moscow are simply trying to find a way, any way, to close the site down and thus create a situation in which they can act without the glare of publicity and the certainty that what they do will be known to a larger audience.
In the past, Zyazikov, his family and his staff have intimidated ISPs in the region into dropping the site, hacked it to redirect visitors to pornography sites, threatened the father of the first owner of the site with physical harm if his son did not resign as editor, and taken other steps designed to close Ingushetiya.ru down.
None has worked. The site is now hosted by an ISP based in the United States. People in Ingushetiya generally learn of its contents because those who have access to the Internet via satellite print out its postings and put them up as wall newspapers. And international media watchdog groups have focused on all this, thus limiting Zyazikov’s ability to act as he sees fit.
Now Zyazikov and his minions are trying a new tact, using the law itself, a move that in the current environment might work. While some will see that as a step forward from physical intimidation, this use or more properly misuse of the law does three things, all of which are even more broadly dangerous than even the Ingush president’s earlier actions.
First, he is not applying the law but manipulating it, thus undermining the rule of law by treating its texts not as obligatory but as a resource for those in power. Second, by thus muddying the waters, Zyazikov is undermining any chance that those who grew up in the Soviet system will be able to make the psychological transition to the requirements of a Rechtstaat.
And third, by taking this small action, he is, as he certainly knows, many in Moscow hope, and others fear, creating the kind of precedent for the misuse of law that other Russian officials are certain to copy not only in moving against the media but in other areas as well, thus making all rights and freedoms in that country ever more problematic.
But there is one bright side to what Zyazikov is doing: It has attracted far more notice not only in the North Caucasus and the blogosphere but in larger Russian Internet portals and the
Traditional media, all of whom recognize that what happens in Ingushetiya today could very well happen to them tomorrow.
(In addition to Gladysh’s essay on Sobkorr.ru, see for example the following articles: www.polit.ru/event/2008/05/04/close.html, grani.ru/Politics/Russia/Regions/m.136312.html, and www.gazeta.ru/politics/2008/05/04_a_2715311.shtml.)