Careful What You Say: Media Control in Putin’s Russia – Implications for Online Content

Careful What You Say: Media Control in Putin’s Russia – Implications for Online Content

Katherine Ognyanova (University of Southern California, USA)
DOI: 10.4018/978-1-4666-0966-2.ch005
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Abstract

This paper outlines the practices of state control over Internet content in Russia, explaining their grounding in the information culture and media environment of the country. Building on existing data on freedom of the press and online censorship, the present work provides a socio-cultural context expanding the understanding of Kremlin’s influence on the Web. To this end, three relevant planes of power relations are explored. The first one involves censorship and self-censorship routines embedded in Russian information traditions. The second pertains to the state-controlled traditional media, where news goes through a political filter and Internet gets framed in a particular restricted manner. The third domain is that of legislative frameworks and their selective application. The paper suggests that the tools used to control objectionable materials on the Russian Web are not Internet-specific. Rather, they should be seen as an extension of the censorship mechanisms used in traditional media.
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Media Control In Putin’S Russia – Implications For Online Content

Press freedom and media censorship has long been a subject of academic interest, particularly with regard to their characteristics within different political regimes (Siebert, Peterson, & Schramm, 1956). The advent of the Internet – a decentralized and unruly communication medium – introduced new complexities into both research and policy-making efforts in the field (Sussman, 2000).

The Web’s impact on democracy - while often difficult to assess (Morozov, 2009) - is undoubtedly fundamental. Online social media platforms are increasingly seen as an alternative space for civic dialogue and public participation (Faris, Wang, & Palfrey, 2008). In countries with restrictive media environments, web services provide a convenient way to circumvent official information channels (Shirky, 2008).

As Internet censorship is typical of non-democratic regimes, it is most often studied in the context of authoritarian societies. In recent years, research in the area has focused largely on China and the Middle East (Lum, 2006; MacKinnon, 2009; OpenNet, 2009a). The People’s Republic of China is said to have deployed one of the most sophisticated (and intrusive) Internet filtering systems currently in existence (OpenNet, 2009b). Access to online information in the country is selectively blocked through blacklisting of web addresses and scanning of Internet traffic for banned keywords.

Although it is a particularly invasive technological censorship tool, filtering is only one of many mechanisms used to limit access to Internet content. Zittrain and Palfrey (2008) call the numerous non-filtering solutions soft means of control. Those include laws and regulations related to media, telecommunications or national security that restrict the publication of objectionable materials on the Web.

While not engaged in large-scale Internet monitoring efforts, the Russian government does use soft means to deal with disagreeable online content. Russia presents an interesting case study in part specifically because the state is so successful in establishing its influence on the Web (Fossato, Lloyd, & Verkhovsky, 2009) without resorting to content filtering technologies.

This paper aims to provide a comprehensive framework describing existing practices of Internet control in Russia, as well as their grounding in the country’s idiosyncratic information culture and media environment. In order to achieve this, the study draws on data coming from two separate lines of research. Reports on freedom of expression provide statistical data and details about the country’s legislation and its application to online materials (Annenberg SPRC, 2007; Freedom House, 2007, 2009a, 2009b, 2009c; Global Integrity, 2008, 2009). Furthermore, the text builds on a body of literature exploring Russian cultural practices, socio-historical circumstances and their effects on political and civic dialogue. Particularly relevant in this regard are Zassoursky’s (2004) work on the transformations of the Russian media-political system; de Smaele’s analysis of the dimensions of information culture; and Koltsova’s (2001) model of power relationships between the Russian authorities, media and citizens.

In a report published by Freedom House, Karlekar, and Cook (2009) cite three broad categories of Internet control mechanisms:

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