Despite being under fire from all quarters of the political spectrum across the globe, Vladimir Putin is riding the crest of a popularity tidal wave in Russia. The Russian government looks to cement its control over the media and therefore public opinion by tightening the reins on the blogosphere – one of the few remaining places where people can freely criticize the Russian government.
The timing is nifty for the Kremlin amid worldwide condemnation of Russia’s orchestration of Ukrainian unrest and the recent downing of a Malaysian Airlines civilian passenger jet. Putin can’t deflect blame for these actions in the arena of world opinion but he is doing just fine in the polls in Russia. This move against the blogosphere is just the latest attempt by Russia to crackdown on free expression and criticism of the Russian regime and maintain that popularity at home through obfuscation and manipulation of the media’s message..
The media law is meant to publicize and de-anonymize the authors of popular websites, or so the government would have you believe. It is popularly known as the ’law on bloggers”. It requires users of any website with readership of more than 3000 people daily to publish under their real names and register with authorities. It puts bloggers on a par with mass media outlets and holds them to similar standards with regard to dissemination of information and proper use of language.
With the Putin regime controlling most of the electronic, television and print media in the country the added censorship will ensure that the only message received by the average Russian citizen will be that which is acceptable to the government.
This puts a damper on the instrumental roles played by social media in organizing the protests against Vladimir Putin in the 2011-2013 period and it comes on the heels of a 2013 law which closed down websites for advocating what were termed ’extremist activities”.
Also, in March, the government media watchdog barred three opposition news portals and the LiveJournal blog of opposition leader and anti-corruption activist Alexei Navalny. He went to great lengths to publicize shady real estate transactions of prominent people connected to the government.
While this type of censorship and intimidation is de rigeur in Russia, the new legislation is especially worrisome and represents yet another attempt by the government to transfer oversight from the judiciary to unknown, unseen bureaucrats beholden to the Kremlin. Moreover, bloggers fear the law is too vague and ponder the logistic problems of the media watchdog to accurately count their readers. For example, a few months ago in an effort to circumvent registration under the law, LiveJournal refrained from listing the exact number of followers above 2500 readers.
But perhaps what is most frightening is the inference by the deputy head of the media watchdog, Maxim Ksenov, that the legislation will be applied selectively. He said,
’If you post kitten pics, speak in a civilized manner and publish no classified information, you may be never required (to register), even if you have a daily audience of 1 million visitors.’
In other words, if you knuckle under and refrain from speaking freely on issues and reporting things as they happen, you will be allowed to publish your pap. Violators could incur fines of up to 50,000 rubles or nearly $1500 and be shutdown.
Such is the state of affairs in Vladimir Putin’s Russia – and a sad state of affairs it is.