A criminal investigation into comments made by a Moscow-based blogger ahead of a protest against Vladimir Putin’s March 4 election victory have stoked fears of a clampdown on online dissent.
“This is a dangerous precedent,” said Alexander Morozov, a popular blogger and head of Moscow’s Center for Media Studies think-tank. “It is the first swallow of spring.”
Blogger and former Novaya Gazeta journalist Arkady Babchenko, 35, could face up to two years behind bars on charges of “calling for mass disorder” over an entry on Live Journal, Russia’s most popular blogging platform.
In his February 27 post, Babchenko said Moscow protesters should be ready to “occupy the centre of the city and, most importantly, hold it” if they wanted to see a “Russia without Putin.” “We need a Maidan,” he said, in reference to the square occupied by protesters during Ukraine’s 2004 Orange Revolution.
However, he also stressed that it was important to avoid violence and plunging the country into “civil war,” in a more than 1,500-word post.
Babchenko was writing a week before scores of protesters were detained by police after refusing to disperse following the end of an approved opposition rally on March 5. Babchenko was among those arrested.
The initial complaint against Babchenko was made by Public Chamber member Boris Yakemenko, whose brother, Vasily, is head of Russia’s Federal Youth Agency.
Babchenko accused Yakemenko on his Live Journal account on Tuesday of “lies” and “distorting” his comments. Yakemenko declined to comment when contacted by RIA Novosti.
“Pro-Putin public figures have a very great temptation to file charges and call for investigations now and this is something they will certainly do,” Morozov said. “We could now see courts flooded with complaints that bloggers are inciting social discord.”
While Russia’s major television channels are all state-controlled and frequently accused of pro-government bias, the Internet has provided a fertile ground for discussion of political themes taboo in mainstream media, connecting people across a vast territory that extends through nine time zones.
It was also used by protest leaders to publicize and organize the series of mass demonstrations that hit Moscow and other cities this winter in the wake of December’s disputed parliamentary polls. VKontakte, the Russian equivalent of Facebook, said security officials had asked the company to deactivate accounts belonging to opposition groups after the initial protests. It refused to do so, citing “political neutrality.”
“A lot of people who use the Internet in Russia are members of the middle class, who have decided that they can use the web to discuss political problems,” said Moscow-based security analyst Andrei Soldatov. “But this could be a signal for them to forget about their activism.”
“Bloggers in Russia’s regions have faced criminal charges in the past but they have usually been given suspended sentences and the like,” he went on. “But no one knows how the situation might change now - we are talking about Moscow and a relatively well-known person here.”
However, Oleg Kozyriev, a media analyst and influential blogger, suggested Russia’s Internet community was unlikely to be scared into silence.
“I don’t think this will frighten Russia bloggers,” he said. “It’s not as easy to pressure the blogging community of thousands of people as it is business and the mainstream media.”
He also defended Babchenko’s comments.
“There was nothing terrible in his words,” he said. “He simply wanted people to express their civic position on the square.”
Marketing research company ComScore ranked Russia first in Internet use among 18 European countries surveyed last September, with 51 million users. Germany was second.
“The Internet is very important in Russia,” said Anton Nosik, pioneer of the Russian web and media director of SUP, the company that owns Live Journal. “It’s also important that no one has ever been indicted for calling for mass disorder online.”
“So, Yakemenko is trying to force the country into a new reality here,” he went on. “One in which the crime of thought is punishable – where personal opinion is considered a crime.”
But he also pointed out that the court had yet to consider the case and warned against “exaggerating” developments.”
“Cases are investigated and handled on an individual basis,” he said.
As for Babchenko, he pointed out on Wednesday in his Live Journal account that the number of people wishing to “friend” him online had rocketed after the charges were brought.
“There are simply a monstrous amount of extremists in our country,” he joked.