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Russia: Digital Oppression Hits Web Forums as Election Approaches

This post is part of our special coverage Russia Elections 2011.

As the Russian parliamentary election comes closer, dispersed attacks on regional discussion boards have turned into a massive wave of digital oppression. These online forums are especially popular in the Russian regions, as compared to personalized blogs they are usually anonymous, self-governed, and allow hard criticism of the authorities.

In the first half of November 2011, five media outlets in different regions of Russia suffered either from indirect censorship or from clear self-censorship.

‘Kostroma Jedis’

On November 16, 2011, the server of the Kostroma Jedis Forum (jedi.net.ru), the most popular forum in the Kostroma region with 12,000 daily visitors, was confiscated by the police (see the police statement here [ru] and here [ru]).

'Kostroma Jedi', Albert Stepantsev, surrounded by police. Photo uploaded by Maresyeva Pyata.

'Kostroma Jedi', Albert Stepantsev, surrounded by police. Photo uploaded by Maresyeva Pyata.

Police officer D.V. Shinov from the Kostroma region traveled several hundred kilometers from Kostroma to Dolgoprudny (where the data center which hosts the forum is located), in order to confiscate the web server on the grounds of an ongoing libel investigation against Kostroma governor Igor Slyunyaev [ru] (article 319 of the Penal Code [ru]). It is important to note that the law that de-criminalizes libelling (libel will become administrative violation) is almost signed [ru] by the president, which means, the authorities have ‘the last chance’ to prosecute their critics this way.

The only official document disclosed so far mentions a YouTube video posted by user Maresyeva Pyata (so far the only accused individual in the case) that uses parts from the movie ‘Downfall‘ to mock the regional governor (whom users use to call “The One Whose Name Cannot Be Spoken”) and other officials.

According to the Jedi website [ru], Zh.V. Misheneva, a chief police investigator, explained that she thought these videos were hosted on the server. Forum users, however, believe [ru] that the police captured the server in order to de-anonymize forum users (using IP addresses), prevent users from communicating, and find compromising data that could be later publicised in order to destroy the reputations of forum users.

Offline in election run-up

Misheneva also said that the investigation procedures in such a case takes up to 16 days, which means the server will be brought to the datacenter only on December 1, in other words, three days before election day.

According to unconfirmed forum posts, the server owner and forum's main administrator Andrey Grechyukhin, or ‘Vanka,’ was detained for two days.

On November 20, forum users attempted to get together and sign a petition but were dispersed by the police (photos [ru], video). This video uploaded to YouTube by user shows the meeting with the police:

Closure of the website, however, was not able to prevent users from communicating. Some users moved to superjedi.ru (a site which existed before as a somewhat competing space), some to the newly created jedi.net.in (a domain located in India). As in the case of famous Russia sci-fi writer Leonid Kaganov's site, both websites were pushed out of the Russian territory and are hosted in Germany now.

This is not the first time forum posts have attracted the authorities’ attention. In April 2010, Kostroma prosecutor's office tried [ru] to prosecute forum user Prishelec for a profile picture that slightly resembled a swastika; the authorities claimed the image violated Article 20.3 of the Administrative Code that forbids public representation of Nazi symbols. According to Albert Stepantsev, active forum user, Prishelec received a small fine.

The situation is still ongoing. Updates are located here [ru].

The Kostroma discussion has revealed another case. Forum user Prodazhniy, referring to a closed discussion on spkostroma.ru, wrote [ru] that the police had pressured the newspaper ‘My City Kostroma.’ The newspaper that belongs to one of the active forum users, was approached almost simultaneously by the police and an anti-monopoly service. On November 21, police detained [ru] Viktor Yepifantsev, reporter of the newspaper for several hours.

Self-censorship on the rise

Forum closed due to maintenance. Screenshot from forum.miass.ru (taken on November 22, 2011)

Forum closed due to maintenance. Screenshot from forum.miass.ru (taken on November 22, 2011)

Several thousand kilometers from Kostroma, Miass [ru] city forum (forum.miass.ru) removed all comments and left only one message: “This forum is closed due to maintenance.” Citizen reporters from ку-тв.рф [ru], called [ru] the administration and received a reply that “the forum administrator left and will be back only after December 4 (election day)”.

In Perm, the newspaper Chusovskoy Rabochiy (chrgazeta.ru), removed [ru] all comments that had been published since the newspaper's launch in 2003, also forbidding users to leave comments.

In Arzamas, in central Russia, mcn.nnov.ru (45,000 visitors per month) forum moderators introduced an ‘apolitical’ zone. After deleting several topics dedicated to the elections, the position was explained [ru]:

Форум объявляется зоной аполитичной по некоторым очевидным и не очень причинам, перечисляться здесь которые не будут (также по некоторым очевидным и не очень причинам). Темы о них будут удаляться.

This forum is declared to be a zone free of politics for some evident and not so evident reasons that will be not listed here (also for the evident and not so evident reasons). All topics will be deleted.

These cases are only the few that received attention. It is unknown, however, to what degree regional discussion boards were either forced to switch to the ‘apolitical mode,’ or decided to do it as an act of self-censorship.

Being more obscure and mostly anonymous, regional forums are more vulnerable to pressure from the authorities compared to larger media outlets or popular bloggers. However, they represent the voices that are usually heard the least.

This post is part of our special coverage Russia Elections 2011.

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