Vienna, December 24 – One of the consequences of the current economic crisis in Russia is that the Internet is becoming a more important player in the media there, but precisely because of that, the web is attracting greater attention from Russian officials who view it as a threat to their ability to shape public attitudes through their control of television.
As their incomes stagnate or fall, Russians increasingly are turning to media outlets that do not cost them as much as newspapers and magazines do. Until recently and for many still, that has meant television; but now, especially as more and more Russians recognize the growing gaps in TV coverage, it includes the Internet as well.
The growth in the number of Russians going online entails two significant consequences. On the one hand, more and more companies are spending their advertising budgets on websites rather than traditional outlets, something that further erodes the already precarious situation of many of the latter (www.nr2.ru/technology/213564.html).
On the other, Moscow has been forced to recognize that the Internet now represents an increasingly serious challenger to its control of the media space and hence of the public agenda in that country. And that recognition has led the government to seek to control a media that many Russian officials had thought that they could ignore (socreal.fom.ru/?link=ARTICLE&aid=535)
Over the last two years, the Russian government has sought to treat the Internet de facto and to the extent it can get the Duma to go along as a form of media that can be subject to all the Russian laws and regulations that govern the print media and thus give the regime extensive powers to control this new medium.
Moreover, the force structures are widely assumed to be behind denial of service attacks against Internet sites that the regime does not like, even though such attacks are conducted in ways that allow for deniability. Today, for example, opposition sites like Grani.ru have been hit (rufront.ru/materials/4950A29233C56.html and sobkorr.ru/news/49520E7D7223A.html).
But in the wake of the Vladivostok events, the FSB has taken a new and more active role: Its officers visited the moderators of the ru_auto Internet community and asked that they not post stories about the automobile protests, visits that intimidated some but encouraged others to go public (kontury.info/news/2008-12-23-607).
Given Moscow’s efforts to control reporting on Vladivostok – the OMON beat journalists who were there to the point that several were hospitalized and the central electronic media have downplayed that and the events surrounding it – these official “visits” should come as no surprise given the importance of the ru_auto community on the RUnet.
At present, that community united approximately 10,000 Living Journal users and includes from 10 to 100 new posts a day. And over the last few days, it has, in the words of kontury.ru become “an important center for the dissemination of information about protest actions” by automobile owners concerning Moscow’s boosting of import duties on foreign cars.
More visits and denial of service attacks are likely as officials try to balance their desire to control the Russian news environment with both their image abroad and the need many Russian researchers have for access to the kind of politically innocuous information that is readily available to them now only on line.
The editor of one leftist portal today sought to put what is happening in a broader context. Anatoly Baranov wrote that “in principle, the heightened attention of the special organs and their secret cooperators to opposition resources on the RUnet in periods of political tension” is “something entirely routine” (forum.msk.ru/material/news/669381).
But he suggested that the authorities have their work cut out for them if they hope to block this channel for the expression of opposition views. All the “more or less serious” opposition groups, he noted, have their sites hosted abroad. Consequently, pinging makes it possible to determine whether they are really opposition sites or not.
If a site is still hosted in Russia, he continued, it will be subject to official pressure both directly and via its hosting company, just as would have been the case for the Bolsheviks in pre-Soviet times, if their newspaper “’Iskra’ would have been published in a typography” operated by the Okhrana, the tsar’s secret police.