Reporters Without Borders deplores the many cases of censorship that marred yesterday’s parliamentary elections in Russia. As most of the traditional media, including TV stations, are controlled by the Kremlin, real political debate takes place only online. But coordinated cyber-attacks and arrests of journalists and bloggers were carried out in an apparent bid to suppress even the online debate.
These incidents have obstructed open discussion of Russia’s political future and do not bode well for the presidential election due to take place in March.
Wave of cyber-attacks
Websites critical of the government were paralyzed before and during the elections by a series of Distributed Denial of Service attacks  aimed as silencing them.
LiveJournal, a blog platform that hosts many anti-government blogs, was rendered inaccessible for three days beginning on 1 December. It suffered a DDoS attack on 28 November as well.
The targets of DDoS attacks also included:
- The site of radio Echo of Moscow, echo.msk.ru
- The site of the independent daily Kommersant, kommersant.ru
- The site of the election-monitoring NGO Golos.org
- The general news site Gazeta.ru
- KartaNarusheniy.ru, an interactive map created by Golos for reporting cases of electoral fraud
- The site of Lenizdat, which covers political news in Saint Petersburg, lenizdat.ru
- Three opposition sites – Ridus.org, Slon.ru and NewTimes.ru (the two latest relayed the Golos map after Gazeta.ru decided to stop relaying it (see earlier release below)
- The site of Dosh, an independent magazine that covers the Russian Caucasus, doshdu.ru
- The site of Zaks, which covers political news in the northwest, zaks.ru.
Some of the attacks on these sites began a few days before the elections, paving the way for the massive attacks of 3 and 4 December. Most of these sites became accessible again as voting stations were about to close yesterday in central Russia, where the largest number of voters live.
In anticipation of this sort of problem, some news media and opposition groups had migrated their site content to online social networks and had told their readers to follow them on Twitter and Facebook if their sites went down.
For more information about these cyber-attacks, read this article by Alexey Sidorenko in English for Global Voices.
Election coverage obstructed
Several journalists were barred from voting stations. According to Aleksandr Gorshkov, the editor of the independent news website Fontanka.ru: “In most cases, the reasons given for barring journalists was the fact that they had cameras and, via their photos, could publicize the personal data of voters.”
Although illegal, this was the reason that was given to a Fontanka.ru correspondent for preventing him from entering a voting station in the far-north town of Primorye. A reporter for the news agency Rosbalt was evicted from a polling station for photographing a ballot box. Vitaly Kamyshev, the correspondent of Radio Svoboda (the Russian-language service of Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty), was denied access to the Central Election Commission and was stripped of his accreditation. The correspondents of the BBC and American Press Agency were arrested in a Moscow voting station and were held for an hour.
Arrests of critical journalists and bloggers
A number of opposition journalists and bloggers were briefly arrested during the last few days before the election.
The editor of the independent news website Besttoday.ru, Alexey Sochnev, was arrested on 2 December by police who, without showing any warrant, forced their way into his Moscow apartment, breaking the door. He was subsequently charged under article 282 of the criminal code with helping to run an extremist organization. Sochnev was one of several members of the campaign committee of Eduard Limonov (the head of the banned National Bolshevik Party) who were arrested. But Besttoday.ru managing editor Marina Litvinovich said the police also went to the home of the website’s developer in order to search it.
The well-known blogger Maria Plieva was arrested while participating in a banned demonstration in Vladikavkaz, the capital of North Ossetia, on 3 December. She was released that evening and appeared in court that next day. A charge of hooliganism was finally dropped.
In Ulyanovsk, the blogger Oleg Sofiyn received an anonymous phone call in which he was told that he would end up with a “broken skull” if he continued to criticize the region’s deputy governor, Svetlana Openysheva.
The head of the NGO Golos, Lilia Shibanova, was arrested on the night of 2 December on arriving at Moscow’s Sheremetyevo airport and was held for 12 hours. Her computer was confiscated after being closely examined on the grounds that it could contain “material dangerous for national security.”
Earlier in the day, Golos was fined 30,000 rubles (720 euros) for allegedly publishing poll results during the five days prior to the elections. The same day, Golos was the subject of a one-sided report by NTV (a station owned by the state oil giant Gazprom) accusing it of being a western intelligence outpost.
Most of the traditional media, including TV stations, did not report these incidents, but provided generous coverage of Prime Minister Vladimir Putin’s party, United Russia, which won the elections.
01.12.2011 - Authorities tighten control of all media in run-up to elections
Reporters Without Borders firmly condemns the avalanche of arbitrary censorship measures that Russia’s federal and local authorities have been adopting ahead of the 4 December parliamentary elections and the presidential elections scheduled for 4 March.
They are targeting both the traditional media, which are closely scrutinized, criticized and threatened, and the Internet, now recognized as playing a key role in political debate. Russia has 51 million Internet users, more than any other country in Europe. A quarter of Russians say the Internet is their main source of news (according to the market research company comScore).
Reporters Without Borders has compiled a list of recent freedom of information violations that show that no methods are being spared to bolster Russian strongman Vladimir Putin and promote unanimous acclaim for his decision to run again for the presidency.
Censorship of Internet criticism
Prime Minister Putin recently warned western countries against any attempt to meddle in Russia’s elections and the state-run Ria Novosti news agency was allegedly ordered to rid its website of any foreign news reports critical of Putin.
Grigory Okhotin resigned from Inosmi, a Ria Novosti offshoot that translates foreign media articles into Russian and posts them on its website, after receiving an internal email from the head of the Internet department asking all employees “not to post any article hostile to Putin and United Russia on the site” during the week prior to the elections. Okhotin leaked the email on 26 November.
A Ria Novosti spokesperson denied Okhotin’s claim on 29 November, pointing out that media censorship violates Russia’s constitution. The news agency is now planning to sue Okhotin for defamation.
LiveJournal, a very popular blog platform that hosts much of the political debate taking place in Russia, was the target of yet another DDoS attack on 28 November. The platform has been the repeated target of such attacks (in which a website is blocked by means of thousands of simultaneous access requests) since the start of the year.
Regional forums targeted
Online regional discussion forums are very popular. In most cases participation is anonymous and Russians like using them to discuss politics. They are a nightmare for the authorities but, as they are less powerful than national media, it is easier to close them down. Of course, that does not stop Russians from continuing their debates on sites hosted abroad. At least three forums have been closed or suspended since the start of November.
On 15 November, police from the western city of Kostroma travelled all the way to Dolgoprudny, to the web-hosting company Agava Hosting, to seize the server of Kostroma Jedis, the region’s most popular forum with 12,000 daily visitors, because of two satirical videos criticizing governor Igor Slyunyayev (http://www.youtube.com/ watch?hl=en&v=lJCg5w9SQYs&gl=US and http://www.youtube.com/watch? feature=player_embedded&v=UWqTwQ1bNDI#!)
As the governor is suing the person who posted the videos for “insulting a state representative” under article 319 of the criminal code, the police said they were conducting a preliminary investigation that would take two weeks and could not return the server before 1 December (three days before the first round of the elections). As a result, Jedis Forum has been down at the height of the election campaign.
Internet users suspect that the defamation suit is just a pretext in order to gain access to the IP addresses of the forum’s members and identify all those who have been criticizing the governor’s policies, which would be a violation of the right to the confidentiality of users’ personal data.
Other forums – for example, in the central region of Arzamas (mcn.nnov.ru) and the southern city of Miass (forum.miass.ru) – were closed or purged of all political content by their administrators during November. Whether as a result of self-censorship or on the orders of local officials, it has narrowed the scope of online political debate in Russia.
Newspapers and radio
Surveillance of the traditional media has also been stepped up. The far eastern Sakhalin region’s newspaper Sovetsky Sakhalin has been withdrawn from newsstands. Senior officials allegedly orders vendors not to sell it and threatened to destroy their stands if they disobeyed. Deliveries to the Kuril Islands were stopped on the grounds of financial difficulties and many advertisers have withdrawn their business.
Created in 1925, Sovetsky Sakhalin is the oldest and most popular of the region’s newspapers and is the only local media which is independent and which criticizes the region’s authorities.
There has been a series of resignations from newsrooms as a result of pressure from the authorities. The deputy editor of the Gazeta.ru news portal, Roman Badanin, announced his resignation yesterday because his “coverage of the pre-election period no longer satisfied the management and owners.”
Badanin objected to the withdrawal of an interactive map of election campaign violations displayed in banner form on the site. The result of a partnership with the NGO Golos (Voice), it allowed Internet users to report violations of the electoral process as they witnessed them. Another news portal, Slon, and the weekly The News Times have adopted it. Gazeta.ru’s management said it was removed simply to make space for more advertising in the run-up to the end-of-year holidays.
Three members of the management of radio Abakan, radio Ekho Moskvy’s partner in the southern Siberian republic of Khakassia, resigned six days ago after being asked by the owners to change its programme schedule. Two subjects were to have been debated with listeners during the programme “Razvorot” on 24 November – “homosexual propaganda” (the subject of a Saint Petersburg municipal assembly bill) and “Putin’s third presidential term.” Abakan had to drop one of the topics because someone close to the ruling United Russia party asked it “not to mix Putin and homos.”
Russia is ranked 140th out of 178 countries in the latest Reporters Without Borders press freedom index and is classified as a “country under surveillance” in its “Enemies of the Internet” report. As a signatory of the European Convention on Human Rights and member of the Organization for Security and Cooperation in European, Russia is supposed to guarantee media diversity and free speech.
Laws decriminalizing defamation and insulting comments (including online) and reinforcing the penalties for physical attacks on journalists were adopted on 17 November. Reporters Without Borders urges the authorities to fully implement these laws and to demonstrate a determination to respect media freedom and online freedom of information during the coming elections.
 A DDoS attack is one in which many computer systems simultaneously flood a single website with access requests, causing it to block and shut down, thereby denying the service to legitimate users