The repressive “bloggers law” signed by President Vladimir V. Putin on May 6 says a good deal about the troubling decline of free expression in Russia, according to two leading analysts. This measure comes on the heels of a series of other laws recently put in place to restrict television, books, films, and certain public performances, further curtailing Russia’s already besieged media space, Christopher Walker and Robert Orttung write for Freedom House’s Freedom At Issue blog…..
During the decade and a half of Putin’s rule, media freedom in Russia has gradually eroded. As we write in a recent issue of the Journal of Democracy, the Kremlin is finding alarmingly effective ways to manipulate and control media, despite the proliferation of new communication technologies and methods of news distribution…..
Diffusion of Kremlin Media Values
Putin’s revanchism brings with it some distressing byproducts, one of which is the projection of illiberal Kremlin media values beyond Russia’s borders. …..The first order of business for Russian-backed forces in Crimea was to cut off sources of information beyond the control of the Kremlin. The crackdown on mass media was accompanied by fierce repression of local activists, bloggers, and others who voiced opinions contrary to the Kremlin line, according to a report written by Ivan Šimonović, the UN assistant secretary general for human rights. ….
The same type of propaganda invasion that coincided with the physical invasion of Crimea has been on view in eastern Ukraine. As pro-Russian forces extend their hold, Kremlin media values take root there, too, with coercive tactics used on independent journalists and dissidents in ways that are common in Russia, but had been rare in Ukraine….
As the Kremlin’s ability to project media power has strengthened over time, the authorities in countries on Russia’s periphery have been forced to contend with increasingly provocative and destabilizing messaging. Moscow’s well-funded media complex simply outguns local Russophone alternatives in places like Moldova, Kyrgyzstan, and the Baltic states.
Moscow’s propaganda effort in these countries is nothing new; it has been a staple of Putin’s rule, calibrated to suit Russian authorities’ needs at any given time. What is different now is its intensity, the sheer brazenness of the falsehoods disseminated by Kremlin-controlled media, and the fact that its disruptive and provocative elements are being escalated as part of Russia’s new revanchist push. The Kremlin’s claims that it wants stability on its borders ring hollow in the face of its own utterly destabilizing propaganda.
Censorship and Propaganda: Two Sides of a Coin
Even as the Kremlin and its surrogates saturate social networks and the internet in general with comments from Kremlin-friendly trolls and provocateurs, more elaborate measures to censor online expression are being put in place. The “bloggers law,” for instance, requires bloggers with significant audiences to register with the authorities and obliges both domestic and international hosting services to record and turn over user data. Additional evidence that the walls are closing in on Russia’s online world is abundant. Pavel Durov, the founder of Russia’s largest social-networking website, fled Russia on April 22, a day after he said he was forced out as the company’s chief executive for refusing to share users’ personal data with Russian law enforcement agencies. At a forum in St. Petersburg on April 24, Putin called the internet a “CIA project” that needed to be controlled, giving a strong signal that further restrictions are in the offing…………
Christopher Walker is executive director of the International Forum for Democratic Studies at the National Endowment for Democracy and can be followed on Twitter @Walker_CT. Robert Orttung is assistant director of the Institute for European, Russian, and Eurasian Studies at the George Washington University’s Elliott School for International Affairs. He can be followed @RobertOrttung.