Galina Arapova on the dawn of ‘neo-censorship’: the pressure on Russian journalism and the new law on out-of-court blocking

8 July 2021

an interview with Galina Arapova director of the Mass Media Defence Centre and laureate of the Moscow Helsinki Group human rights award by Novaya Gazeta correspondent Daria Kozlova

Source: Moscow Helsinki Group [original source: Новая газета]

At the beginning of the week, President Vladimir Putin signed a law on the out-of-court blocking of websites containing ‘damaging information.’  Now, for Roskomnadzor to be able to demand the deletion of material containing such information, it will be enough for the aggrieved party to file a notice as well as a two-week investigation by the prosecutor’s office.  If the material is not deleted, the agency will have the right to block the website without a court decision.  The new norm could strike a blow to journalistic investigations whose heroes have incurred no punishment after publication, which in fact makes the law an instrument of censorship. Moreover, according to the research of Levada Centre [an organisation included by the Ministry of Justice in the list of NGOs performing the function of a ‘foreign agent.’] direct censorship is specifically one of the most serious problems for Russian journalism. Among the others are criminal and administrative prosecution as well as state and media owner interference in editorial policy. Novaya Gazeta correspondent Daria Kozlova spoke with the director of the Mass Media Defence Centre Galina Arapova about how censorship works in today’s Russia, the pressure on journalists, and the blocking of their material. 

In a Levada Centre survey, 57% of respondents named direct censorship as the main problem of Russian journalism.  How much has censorship increased in Russian mass media in the past ten years and what does it look like?

The authorities love to say that there is no censorship in Russia, that it is forbidden by Article 29 of the Constitution and by the law ‘On Mass Media.’  And that censorship actually is the requirement to receive preliminary approval from the government authorities in advance of publishing material, which we don’t have. But now a period of ‘neo-censorship’ has begun, when you can call totally new things censorship that operate more severely and effectively.  Censorship in Russia has been substantially strengthened, and the pressure comes from several directions. 

What forms of censorship are most noticeable?

To begin with, it is ownership.  In recent years, there has been a whole campaign for mass media to become state owned. It already started in 2001 with the destruction of NTV, and then all federal channels became either government-owned , or affiliated with the government, or under the control of some kind of government company.  Ten years ago, a similar campaign began in the regions:  district newspapers began to be rounded up into the government stall instead of being given the possibility of living independently and earning money.  As a result, they became part of large government media-holding companies, deprived of financial independence and no longer separate legal entities  The main district and regional newspapers and regional television channels turned into a part of оne large government news office, where one of their owners was the regional government.  Yes, now they have beautiful colour printing at the expense of the government, but they have totally lost any individuality and independence in decision-making as far as editorial policy goes.  As we know from practice, such media outlets are told from on high what they can write and what they can’t.  Some material is agreed upon with the regional government.  This kind of story is a general problem for the entire country, and it is censorship in the purest form. 

And what happens with independent media that are not affiliated with the government?

Many of the remaining independent media outlets also depend on government funding, but in the form of government contracts to cover the activities of government bodies.  The advertising market has shrunk, and the mass media are being crowded out of it, so media outlets are ready to take money from the government to write advertising texts for the government or to promote government interests in their publications.

For some publications, government contracts now account for as much as 50 percent of their funding.  That can amount to several million roubles a year — for the regional press, that’s a lot of money.

Since they receive contracts for such large amounts, of course the media become loyal and grow afraid to write critical reports about the local authorities.  So, while this is not direct censorship, it is a form of indirect censorship.

What censorship practices are enshrined in law and when did that become generally accepted in Russia? 

The trend began ten years ago, when the authorities acquired the power to block websites.  In 2013, the ‘Andrei Lugovoy law’ was enacted which allows the pre-trial blocking by the authorities of Internet sites (those that contain calls for mass riots, participation in extremist activities or in mass events held in violation of established procedures; these amendments were made to the law ‘On information, information technologies and information protection’ Editor).  A powerful campaign is currently being waged to censor on-line content by means of such blocking.  There are whole lists of prohibited information:  you may not write about suicide, about children who are victims of crime, about judges and law-enforcement officers, and more.  All these content-bans are a form of censorship, but the reality is more a matter of self-censorship.  Journalists begin to think: ‘Do I really need to write about drugs, when that can lead to a fine of 800,000 roubles?’  Content-censorship can result in the fact that, because of one single publication, a journalist can lose access to their resources and, therefore, to their platform and their advertising.  And it is very difficult to sue the department that has decided to block a publication.

Which mass media are under more pressure:  national or regional?

I would say that on-line media are under the most pressure, and regional outlets slightly more so than national ones.  In fact, national and regional media are under different forms of pressure, and the level of control over them also differs.  National media are less often blocked, but they are more likely to try to change their management, in order to try to ‘sing to the right tune.’  We saw this process of changing management at Vedomosti (the newspaper’s owners announced the sale of the publication in March 2020 Editor).  When the management changes, so too does the output’s focus, its editorial policy and its content.  So too, sometimes, do its reputation and its audience.  The same mechanisms work more or less in the same way in the regional media, except that orders to the national press come from the Presidential Administration, but at the lower level this works through local governments.  But the orders are essentially the same:  what you can write about and what you can’t, and meetings with chief editors are held at both levels.  Content-censorship by Roskomnadzor (the Federal Service for the Supervision of Communications, Information Technology and Mass Media) is more frequent at the regional level.  Comparisons are odious — everyone is being watched. 

The Levada Centre research mentions separately the risks of coming under Article 275 of the Criminal Code (high treason). Have there been instances of that article being used against journalists, apart from the case of former Kommersant and Vedomosti journalist Ivan Safronov, who has been in a remand centre since July of last year? Has there been a noticeable rise in criminal cases under this article, and who is at risk?

Right now Ivan Safronov is the only journalist accused of high treason. I think that his case is a show case, so that no one writes about the military-industrial complex or the space industry, while oversight over materials on this topic gets strengthened. I would say that this article is being applied on a broad scale now, whereas previously it wasn’t. At the same time, articles concerning state secrets were changed for the worse in 2012. Previously, culpability arose if the person knew he was dealing with a state secret, that is, if he had signed a pledge of secrecy. Then this limitation was removed, and other instances appeared when a person could be accused of high treason. These other instances are in fact in the sphere of journalistic responsibility: a source might give information to a journalist, who publishes it, and then it turns out to be a state secret.

Can we say that there are certain specific articles of the Criminal Code that may threaten journalists specifically?

 Yes, in the last few years, they have started bringing charges against journalists for slander (Art. 128.1 of the Criminal Code) and invasion of privacy (Art. 137, pt. 2 of the Criminal Code), for example. Here we can think of the editor-in-chief of Important Histories, Roman Anin, and also the editor-in-chief of Proekt, Roman Badanin, and his colleagues Marina Zolotova and Mikhail Sorokin, who underwent searches under these criminal articles (the search at Roman Anin’s was done in April of this year because of materials about Igor Sechin’s former spouse and yacht Princess Olga. Searches of the Proekt journalists were carried out in late June. At least two of the three searches are connected to the 2017 case of businessman Ilya Traber. – Ed.). In addition, they are applying the article about insulting a representative of authority (Art. 319 of the Criminal Code); in 2015, Rostov journalist Sergei Reznik was convicted under this article. Moreover, there is the article on ‘fake news,’ in particular during the pandemic (207.1 RF Criminal Code).

There are many other journalists who have been convicted under extremism articles, as well as for insulting the feelings of believers. 

In addition, we must not forget that journalists’ work can be restricted by using very different articles. The point is to put them in the remand centre. Thus, the editor-in-chief of Novye Kolesa, Igor Rudnikov, was convicted of extortion (Art. 163 RF Criminal Code, the article with which Rudnikov was charged was changed in June 2019, after which he was released. — Ed.), and the same Sergei Reznik was convicted not only of insulting a representative of authority but also of commercial bribery (Art. 204, pt. 2; in all he has been charged under four articles of the Criminal Code, and in 2015 Reznik was sentenced to nearly three years in a penal colony. Ed.). As a result, journalists have had to defend themselves against an entire array of articles. It seems to me that here it is important to note that altogether the Criminal Code has about twenty articles that could be applied to journalists in connection with their work. And only one, Article 144, that defends them, though that one barely works.

Since you’ve already mentioned it, who has been able to utilize Article 144 at all?

There have been two very funny precedents. The first precedent, when Leonid Volkov [former head of the regional headquarters of FBK (Anti-Corruption Foundation [an organisation recognised as extremist by Moscow City Court, included by the Ministry of Justice in the list of NGOs performing the function of a ‘foreign agent’] shoved a journalist (the statement against Volkov in 2015 was made by a LifeNews journalist who asserted that the politician had damaged his microphone. Ed.). The second analogous case was in Vladivostok, when in approximately the same way a TV man from a federal channel blatantly climbed into a minibus to film something in it. As a result, the minibus driver was convicted of impeding journalistic activity (in 2017 he was given a suspended sentence under Art. 144 of the Criminal Code for impeding the professional activity of journalists from the regional GTRK [State Television and Radio]. — Ed.).

You know, when we have federal TV reporters landing in these kinds of scrapes, everything works very efficiently. But when problems come up with journalists from independent media, it’s very hard to achieve anything. For two and a half years we have been trying to bring charges over the fact that in Krasnoyarsk, during a demonstration, a Radio Svoboda [an organisation included by the Ministry of Justice in the list of ‘foreign agent media’] journalist had the telephone she was filming with intentionally knocked out of her hands. We are also trying to bring charges over the disruption of Dozhd correspondent Eduard Burmistrov’s filming. In St. Petersburg, he was arrested on air and taken to the local police station. So they disrupted the filming, but didn’t write up the incident. Meanwhile, he was the only Dozhd journalist reporting on this protest action from Petersburg. The only instance when we were able to bring someone to criminal account was in 2016, when we defended the editor of the Khakas internet-magazine Novy Fokus, Mikhail Afanasiev. Afanasiev had been threatened over the phone by Andrei Ashcheulov, an organised crime boss (shortly before this, Novy Fokus had published an article about the crime organisation’s activities). Despite the fact that they didn’t want to open a case for a long time, the incident did go to trial. In fact, the stars simply aligned: they began to bring charges against the crime boss under other articles as well. As a result, of the 18 years and two months of penal colony to which the court sentenced Ashcheulov, two years and two months were actually under Article 144.

Going back to the blocking, how will the law signed by Vladimir Putin earlier this week on the extrajudicial blocking of websites containing ‘defamatory information’ work?

It’s actually very simple. First, it gives the regulatory bodies an excellent tool for blocking corruption-related investigative journalism, including old stories. Anything that relates to the dissemination of information alleging that an offence or crime has been committed (whether corruption or another abuse) usually falls into the category of investigative journalism. Even if it was published ten years ago, it is still available on the internet. You and I can read about Roman Anin’s investigation into the Princess Olga yacht or any other investigative journalism at any time. In the past, you had to go to court and sue for defamation in order to get information like this retracted or removed from the internet. Both the claimant and the defendant, such as a journalist or editorial representative, appeared in court. There, they had the opportunity to present evidence that proved their position. So, it was an adversarial trial in which the media had the opportunity to present evidence and defend themselves. Information that the court found to be defamatory could only be removed after the decision was handed down. In turn, a website could only be blocked after the editorial staff had refused to remove material following the relevant court decision.

The law signed into force by Putin does not even require attendance in court. The person just needs to write a statement to the prosecutor’s office saying: ‘It states on this webpage that I am corrupt, even though I have not been tried on a criminal charge for corruption.’ The prosecutor then has ten days to verify this information, assessing only the evidence given to him by the ‘offended party’. The journalist that wrote the story might not even know the story is being verified. At the same time, if the prosecutor sees that the person named in the anti-corruption investigation really hasn’t been tried for corruption, that will be enough for them to find the story ‘unreliable and defamatory’. (It takes another five days for the General Prosecutor’s Office to verify the information, after which the request to remove the material is sent to Roskomnadzor – Ed.) If the editorial staff refuses to remove the investigation, the page with it on or the whole website can be blocked. So now, if desired, the internet can be wiped clean of every single investigation in which no one was prosecuted.

Will it be possible to apply the new law against major internet sites such as YouTube?

Hypothetically, yes. Right now, almost all editorial boards make their own videos. They, in turn, are posted on a YouTube channel, which could well be blocked for a certain period of time. Clearly, no one is talking about blocking all of YouTube, the site will remain available to Russian viewers. Internet users will not have access to a particular video or a particular channel that will be blocked.

Is it possible to predict how the courts will proceed to unblock resources?

In principle, we have enough experience to predict what the likelihood is that sites will be unblocked in court. I should point out right away we cannot say it is impossible to unblock a site. It is possible, but difficult. It depends a lot on what kind of content for which the site was blocked. For example, we had a case about the blocking of the Internet portal Voice of Islam (some of the materials they distributed were found to be extremist, the site was blocked in February 2016 at the request of the Prosecutor General’s Office. – Ed.). It was not a radical site, its content was somewhat reminiscent of the Orthodox TV channel Spas. We managed to get it unblocked through the court. Alif TV was a different story, blocked for different reasons three times in a row. We did not manage to get the blocking recognized as illegal. The blocking of Ezhednevnyi Zhurnal and is another telling story. Despite the fact that the ECtHR ruled the blockages illegal (and even ordered compensation, that the Russian authorities paid), the sites remain blocked.

What complicates the unblocking process?

The issue of blocking seems to depend on political attitudes. Theoretically, it is possible for a site to be unblocked, and the law provides for such a procedure: you have to remove the dangerous content and notify Roskomnadzor. But there are always some excesses. For example, it is not known what exactly needs to be removed. In the case of Ezhednevnyi Zhurnal, we were never told what in the site was considered illegal.

A representative of the Prosecutor General’s Office answered in court that the site was blocked because of the combination of publications and the general orientation of the site. So this is a game without rules. It was a low blow.

In addition to this, a negative attitude towards the Internet is forming among judges. They themselves are not allowed to use social networks. In parallel, legislation is being consistently amended to indicate that information disseminated on the Internet is bad, it necessarily violates the rights of citizens. Suicide instructions, information about explosive devices and drugs are distributed on the Internet, so regulations are constantly being introduced into the law to restrict content that is dangerous to the life and health of citizens, including minors. All of this creates a sense of constant danger from the Internet. So it’s not surprising when a prosecutor comes to a judge demanding that an article on the Internet or a website be blocked because there’s dangerous information there, it will be blocked.

Translated by Rights in Russia, Elizabeth Teague, Marian Schwartz, Nicky Brown and Simon Cosgrove

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