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The Caucasus Network: The Subtleties of Censorship

9 June 2013, photo by Sergey Ponomarev.

9 June 2013, photo by Sergey Ponomarev.

This article is part of an extensive RuNet Echo study of the North Caucasus blogosphere. Explore the complete report and personal stories on The Caucasus Network page.

In their 2010 paper for Harvard University’s Berkman Center for Internet and Society, Bruce Etling, Karina Alexanyan, John Kelly, Rob Faris, John Palfrey, and Urs Gasser described Russian Internet censorship as “contested authoritarianism”:

First, by any number of measures, Russia is at best a thin, electoral democracy, and some argue it represents a new type of a hybrid regime that might be called “contested authoritarianism.” However one chooses to label Russia’s political system, most observers agree that the government maintains tight control over politics and the economy, and to a lesser extent over the critical aspects of the media and society. The system is not nearly as restrictive as the Soviet Union, but it is also far from free.

The mechanics of Internet censorship in the North Caucasus are not dramatically different from elsewhere in Russia. While the region’s local authorities typically treat the blogosphere as harmless, efforts to censor online content have gradually increased, according to bloggers and professionals contacted for this study. As Russia’s political climate has changed in recent years, the government has increasingly exploited remnants of the old Soviet infrastructure.

In 2012, RIA Novosti reported that Russian surveillance officials signed a multi-million-dollar contract with the information technology firm “Iteranet” for a project designed to monitor the Russian blogosphere on a mass scale.

Even without the active involvement of the government today, Russian society—both in the heartland and in the North Caucasus—is accustomed to expurgations of politically sensitive public materials.

Like Russia’s national mix of formal and informal censorship, control over the North Caucasus’ blogosphere is notable for its subtlety. Indeed, the process relies principally on intermediaries in the telecoms industry micro-managing the region’s social networks, as well as bloggers’ own self-censorship.

The Ghost of Self-Censorship

Most of the censorship bloggers face in the North Caucasus is self-directed. It is comparatively rare that bloggers can recount instances of external pressure from the authorities or “run-ins with the law” concerning something objectionable published online.

In my own interviews with several bloggers from each region of the North Caucasus, the overwhelming majority confessed to censoring their own writing, when addressing certain topics. In most cases, they say they exercise special caution when writing about issues that concern the state, cultural traditions, or organized religion. The few who denied any such precautions are the individuals at the extremes of the political spectrum: the active government supporters and the committed oppositionists.

According to Interkavkaz (a network aimed at promoting independent journalism), bloggers exercise self-censorship more to maximize employment opportunities than to avoid reprisals by the authorities.

The active political oppositionists I contacted told me that some people tailor their blogging to dovetail with rhetoric sympathetic to the government, in an effort to promote their careers within the government bureaucracy, where jobs in North Caucasus can still be secured with relative ease.

In most cases, however, self-censorship has the more passive goal of protecting an individual’s status quo—of not “rocking the boat.”

Micro-Management

In addition to self-censorship, individuals involved in the maintenance of the North Caucasus’ social networks and telecoms industry also play a role in managing content on the region’s blogosphere. The following pertains to blogs once hosted on the North Caucasian section of PublicPost, which ceased operations on July 1, 2013.

Internet access in the North Caucasus is largely unfiltered, both for private connections and in public spaces like Internet cafes and libraries. Despite this openness, the area’s blogosphere is monitored closely for any investigative reportage on issues related to human rights and corruption. Posting offhand comments about these subjects—or even frequent visits to human rights advocacy websites—can be enough to prompt a visit by state officials or telecoms authorities.

Staff in the executive offices of the region’s republics monitor any blogs that criticize government performance. According to Magomed Mutsolgov, a human rights lawyer and prominent blogger from Ingushetia (whom I interviewed for this study), police and counter-terrorism departments keep an eye on bloggers who take an interest in issues relevant to human rights—especially counter-terrorism operations. Mutsolgov further claims that the methods to censor content vary from polite requests to remove material, offers of bribes, and occasionally concrete threats.

According to an employee of the now-defunct PublicPost blogging platform, the government’s two chief methods of monitoring the Internet fall under what might be described as “mass-sweeping” and “target practice.” The latter tactic consists of singling out troublesome bloggers, placing them under regular surveillance, and pressuring them into some form of self-censorship. In 2009, for instance, many friends and colleagues of the staff at Chernovic, Dagestan’s most prominent opposition newspaper (which mixes traditional media and blogging approaches), endured a wave of police summons and informal but harassing “talks” engineered to intimidate the publication from hosting further critical reportage.

“Mass-sweeping” involves the closure of blogs that frequently post certain key words that the authorities have determined to be questionable. In interviews with employees at several blogging platforms (conducted on the condition of anonymity), respondents explained that decisions to ban certain users are usually made by the blogging platform’s owners. As far as employees know, these moves are intended to prevent the need for police interference, but the motivation can also be financial. Owners of the region’s blogging platforms are naturally reluctant to allow users to affiliate the service with contentious political campaigns.

Platforms like LiveJournal and Facebook enjoy more lax rules and appear to be generally free of direct surveillance, according to an interview with an advisor to the Ingushetian President, who claims that the government actually enjoys a warm relationship with the leaders of platforms like LiveJournal.

When a decision is made to conduct a purge, a platform’s management hires roughly five people, who spend nearly two months combing through blogs and comments, looking for content triggered by key words like “United Russia,” “Putin,” “Surkov,” “Kadyrov,” “Pussy Riot,” “Khorodkovsky,” and so on. Bloggers who frequently use such words are at a high risk of losing their account without warning or any explanation. While there is no record of bloggers ever appealing such bans, employees of certain blogging platforms assure me that these “mass sweeps” have become commonplace enough that they fail to garner any publicity in either the blogosphere or the media.

Censorship customs tend to break down when blogging addresses issues or events that have a high shock value. In these circumstances, bloggers mobilize as a community, often organizing around specific protest agendas.

In 2010, one such shocking incident—the gang rape of 13-year-old Zalina Alubova—galvanized the Dagestani blogosphere against the perceived inefficiency of local law enforcement. Bloggers’ outrage eventually spilled into the streets, where demonstrators (coordinating through LiveJournal and Facebook messages) tried to pressure police into redoubling their investigation. The democratic potential of netizen mobilization, however, suffers from the Internet’s attention deficit and is typically short-lived. More complex and protracted cases fall out of the spotlight long before the need for public support ends.

In another high-profile case, Shami Abdulaev claimed to have suffered torture while in illegal police detention on armed robbery charges. Nariman Gadzhiev, a prominent journalist and blogger in Dagestan (where the two identities often overlap) launched an online petition in support of Abdulaev, writing:

Друзья я опять к Вам с просьбой, нужна Ваша помощь , для того чтобы невиновного человека наконец выпустили из тюрьмы. К нам обратилась его тётяКлименкова Диана Гамидовна. Вот как оказывается просто за неправильную фамилию можно схлопотать приличный срок. [...] Теперь очередь за нами надо добиться чтобы судьбой паренька занились наши депутаты государственной Думы и Представитель Дагестана в Москве.

Friends, again I must ask you for a favor. Help is needed so that an innocent man can at last be released from prison. His aunt Diana Gamidovna Klimenkova has contacted us. It seems that do serious time just for having the wrong surname. [...] Now it’s our turn to make sure that our deputies in the federal parliament and Dagestan’s Moscow representative weigh in on this fellow’s fate.

While bloggers did respond to Gadzhiev’s petition by circulating and discussing it online, the court convicted Abdulaev and sentenced him to five years in prison, despite overwhelming evidence that police detained him unjustly and obtained evidence by torture.

While censorship certainly exists in the North Caucasus, it is not particularly inventive or technologically advanced. It relies on manpower, not machines. (For comparison, the Azerbaijan government in its surveillance efforts has purchased special software from Israel and teamed up with Swedish telemarketing firms.) For now, the region’s authorities seem content to rely primarily on varying degrees of self-censorship, when it comes to policing the Internet. Meanwhile, the blogosphere’s capacity for mobilizing the general public remains limited, rendering the Internet an unreliable means of sustaining vibrant public discourse.

This article is part of an extensive RuNet Echo study of the North Caucasus blogosphere. Explore the complete report and personal stories on The Caucasus Network page.

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