Vienna, April 21 – According to a Moscow court, Russian officials can close down an internet portal if visitors to the site leave comments that the authorities deem to be extremist, a ruling that could force Russian sites to moderate all comments before they are posted or to stop allowing such comments, thereby ending one of the most lively forums in the Russian media.
Yesterday, the Federal Arbitration Court of the Moscow District rejected an appeal by the Urals information agency, URA.ru, which held that it should not be subject to warnings that could open the way for its closure for posts visitors to that site left and the site’s own editors took off within a day (grani.ru/Politics/Russia/m.150179.html).
That decision, Aksana Panova, the site’s chief editor, said that the decision not only creates “a dangerous precedent” that could be used throughout the Russian Internet but opens the way for abuse because officials could arrange to have someone post “extremist” materials and then pounce even before the site took them off.
She told “Kommersant” that she is convinced that they have been the victims of “a planned campaign,” because URA.ru twice received a warning for the appearance twice of the same “extremist” message that the editors in both cases removed within a day and now is at risk of being shut down (www.kommersant.ru/doc.aspx?DocsID=1158744).
Even more, she continued, the URA.ru editors immediately turned to the law enforcement agencies of all the regions in which the site has correspondents in an effort to find who had made these posts. But the agencies did not turn up the guilty party despite URA.ru’s provision of the IP addresses of the computers from which these posts came.
Officials responsible for media registration said that they would not necessarily close down sites that carry posts of this kind by visitors to such sites. But that is hardly reassuring because it opens the way to the kind of arbitrariness that is completely at odds with the Russian government’s proclaimed goal of becoming a “law-based” state.
Media and human rights activists are concerned that the Russian government will use this new ruling to selectively punish sites that the powers that be deem to be their opponents. Aleksey Simonov, the president of the Glasnost Defense Foundation, said that “in every region,” the authorities include “people who know which media outlets are loyal and which are not.”
In an open letter to its visitors that appeared on the URA.ru site late yesterday, the editors that “from today, it will be dangerous to find out the opinions of its readers” because that may lead to “quarrels with the government” and ultimately the closure of media outlets that do so (www.ura.ru/content/urfo/20-04-2009/articles/1036253533.html).
“It is no secret,” the editors continue, “that URA.ru does not please everyone: We do not refrain from writing about doubtful financial schemes or the participation of highly-placed bureaucrats in corruption scandals. [And] we consider it correct to publish photographs such as of the cottage of the deputy presidential plenipotentiary and to indicate the cost of its lot.”
From our point of view, they say, “this is the responsibility of journalism and ordinary journalistic work. But certain bureaucrats prefer to deal only with media outlets they ‘control.’” And as this case shows, such bureaucrats now have a new means of putting pressure on media they don’t control or like.
Fortunately, the editors add, the powers that be did not take the final step of closing down URA.ru, but “nevertheless,” they continued, we have been “warned,” and “we have taken the decision to close [the site’s Internet] forum in general,” thus “depriving our readers of the opportunity to discuss news and events in the country.”
Such visitors, they conclude, are now “without a space for discussion.” That is a misfortune for those who rely on URA.ru. But if this case leads other portals to take the same decision – and that seems likely – it will be a tragedy for Russia and a clear indication that the powers that be there have little interest in defending media freedom.