In Putin's Russia, Information Has You: Media Control and Internet Censorship in the Russian Federation

In Putin's Russia, Information Has You: Media Control and Internet Censorship in the Russian Federation

Katherine Ognyanova (Northeastern University, USA)
DOI: 10.4018/978-1-5225-7113-1.ch088
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This chapter outlines the practices of state control over Internet content in Russia and highlights 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 text explores the socio-cultural context of Kremlin's considerable influence on the Web. To this end, three relevant spheres of power relations are explored. The first one involves censorship and self-censorship routines embedded in the Russian information tradition. The second pertains to the state-controlled mainstream media where news goes through a political filter and the framing of Internet's role in the Russian social life is predominantly negative. The third domain concerns local legislative frameworks and their selective application. The analysis suggests that most of the tools used to control objectionable materials on the Russian Web are not Internet-specific. Rather, they can be seen as a natural extension of the censorship mechanisms used in traditional media.
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The Evolution Of Russian Media

In order to explain the nature of Kremlin’s influence over the internet, this work takes a brief look at the evolution of Russian society and the history of its media. Censorship and control have been implicit dimensions of Russia’s lived experience for centuries. Simons and Strovsky (2006) attribute that to the deep-rooted authoritarian traditions of the nation that have permeated the practices and everyday life of the population. Those traditions emerged as a result of the harsh living conditions and the immense territory of the country, which had to be defended from constant attacks on all sides. Survival under those circumstances was premised on the unity of the Russian people under the rule of a strong leader. Predictably, a hierarchical political structure evolved.

This political environment had its effect on the media development in Russia. The first newspaper in the country - Vedomosti - was established in 1702 as a means of informing the population about the plans and wishes of Tsar Peter I the Great. The publication was under the monarch’s full control – he was not only its editor, but also one of its most active writers. Vedomosti (as well as the Russian press that emerged in later years) was never meant to serve the citizens – its goal was to popularize the current priorities of the country and its ruler. In contrast to the Western press which was driven by competition and private interests, Russian news media were always primarily a political tool.

Soviet Times (1922–1991)

During the Soviet period, the state retained a virtually unlimited control over journalistic institutions and the content they produced. After the October revolution (1917), the Bolsheviks faced a critical problem: they had seized power but were struggling to appropriate meaning. The faction strived to achieve dominance over the public discourse - an effort which required the introduction of a new system of symbols, rituals and imagery. This discursive transformation entailed a redefinition of social values (Bonnell, 1997). The media – particularly print and radio – became a particularly helpful means to that end. The press and broadcast outlets were used for the purposes of propaganda. There was a strict control over content, establishing practices meant to limit the information available to the masses. Newspapers, radio, and later television served as tools for the “propagation of an ideologized reality” (Zasoursky, 2004) to which they gave a formal shape. Media were supposed to serve the nomenklatura system and reinforce an ideology which governed not only the public space, but also interpersonal relations and everyday routines.

In Soviet Russia, information was seen as an exclusive right of the chosen few. The privileged elite had access to forbidden periodicals, books and movies - the masses did not. The audience was considered to be too fragile and in constant need of protection from anything seen as remotely disturbing or alarming. A ban on publishing negative reports and covering domestic catastrophes was imposed on all Soviet newspapers. Not even road accidents, train collisions or street crimes could find their way into the news. The information access segregation was severe. The TASS news agency actually produced separate bulletins (printed on paper of a different color) for the ruling class. Party officials had access to more detailed and international news, while the common people read inspiring local stories. Mundane materials like street maps, catalogues and telephone books were not available to the masses – they were considered a military secret. Banned book had “special editions” available “for administrative use” only (Gorny, 2012).

The closed, centralized Soviet model that relied on complete control over information may in fact have played a major role in the collapse of the Union. According to some scholars (Castells & Kiselyova, 1995), that restrictive system was the reason why the communist regime was unable to adapt to the new information economy.

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