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Moscow Trip: Struggling Identity or Plain Censorship?

It is with some trepidation that I make my way into Moscow. I am excited by the prospect of going on a press trip to one of the world’s most beautiful cities, yet it is hard to know what to expect. Claims of state-control and censorship follow the country everywhere and the actions of Russia’s President, Vladimir Putin have received a lot of international condemnation.

In December 2013, Putin abolished the country’s state-owned news agency RIA Novosti and replaced it with news agency Russia Today. It was seen as a shocking move as the majority of news agencies in Russia are state-owned, but RIA Novosti was known for making the greatest attempt to produce balanced coverage. It doesn’t help that Russia’s image has also been severely damaged by the Eastern Ukraine conflict, all adding to its increasing baggage.

In a meeting with a group of other journalists at All-Russia State Television and Radio Broadcasting Company (VGTRK), Russia’s largest media corporation, one of the journalists challenges the TV network’s coverage in the run-up to the elections. A heated argument breaks out and it is difficult to be satisfied by the network’s response. I pose the question of censorship and am given a look of despair: “Censorship is forbidden. When you come to the country with fixed ideals - you never get the real information.”

But if censorship really is forbidden, then what about the “law on bloggers”? The new law requires bloggers with more than 3,000 daily readers to register with the mass media regulator, Roskomnadzor, and conform to the regulations that govern the country’s larger media outlets.

Is this yet another attempt to curb internet freedom? At Russian newspaper, Russia Beyond the Headlines, I am given the following response by Managing Editor, Vsevolod Pulya:

“This is certainly a very serious issue here in Russia because the law has come with the intention to deter terrorism. [These laws started to develop] after the events in December [last year] when there were two blasts right before New Year’s Day. Social networks started circulating rumours of more blasts - so people were terrified. And with these unconfirmed rumours the atmosphere of terror intensified and this influenced the investigation.”

But the enforcement of the law in practice is still ambiguous and Pulya sees this as a problem.

“On the day when the law came into power they were sending requests for the most popular bloggers to register as a media. Some of them did, but some of them didn’t and this didn’t lead into any fines or any crackdowns. So for now it’s more buzz then action,” Pulya adds.

However, Pulya concedes that the law can be considered as a form of censorship: “Some people understand it is really important to get rid of rumours that influence the atmosphere but again everyone understands that this can be considered as a form of censorship as obligations mean more control.”

At the moment individual bloggers may not be threatened directly, but it seems like a slippery slope. It might give Putin an excuse to rid the internet of blogs he does not like.

After a week of heated debates and discussions, plus a lovely Russian salad, it is time to meet the journalism faculty at Moscow State University, and the students. Elena Vartanova, Professor and Dean at Moscow State University, is leading the discussion on journalism between the journalists and the students. The differences between western and Russian media are discussed and the potential impact of the "law on bloggers" is raised again.

For Vatanova, the question of freedom without responsibility is raised. She believes that the audience has become dissatisfied with content and the law was placed because journalists have been unable to regulate themselves. “Bloggers are a particularly complicated case as they do not need a formal journalism qualification,” Vartanova adds.

I ask the students whether they generally feel free and comfortable to voice their opinions on social networks such as Facebook and Twitter. Can they even be anti-government if they wanted to? I don’t get a direct ‘yes’ to the anti-government part (I wasn’t expecting to either) but the general consensus is that the students do feel free to say what they want on social media. How long this will be possible for remains uncertain.

But while the blogger law might have caused an outcry here in the west, do Russians even care? According to a public opinion poll, over half of the people surveyed had never heard of the law, and others knew very little about it. Of those who'd heard of the law, the majority thought it was a good idea, since bloggers should be responsible for what they publish.

At the end of the week here I am left feeling mixed. I get the impression that Russians are generally quite favourable towards Putin, and certainly most of the evidence seem to suggest the same. But with his actions indicating more censorship it is baffling in the west as to why he still remains so popular. Perhaps there are Russians out there that do disagree with his policies, but there is no way to tell – and maybe therein lies the rub.

 

Ayesha Salim is E-Content Writer at IDG Connect

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Ayesha Salim

Ayesha Salim is Staff Writer at IDG Connect

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