The Kremlin has a peculiar sense of humor. Of all the days to issue a sweeping Internet-restricting ordinance it chose the eve of the Day of the Russian Constitution; a document that still maintains, in Article 29, that “everyone shall have the right to freedom of thought and speech” and that “censorship shall be prohibited.” On Monday night, the Russian Prosecutor General’s Office ordered the blocking of more than a half-dozen websites belonging to Open Russia, the pro-democracy movement founded by the now-exiled former oil tycoon and political prisoner Mikhail Khodorkovsky, and its affiliated groups. Ostensibly, the move was made under a recent law targeting “foreign undesirable organizations.” In reality, most of the blocked websites do not belong to the foreign NGOs designated as “undesirable”; they include the website of the Open Russia movement, a Russian political entity; and the personal website of Khodorkovsky, a Russian citizen. Meanwhile, the Russian government’s media oversight agency has written to Twitter and demanded that it delete Open Russia’s account, threatening to block the entire network in Russia if it does not comply.
“Not only is this a violation of the Constitutional right to freedom of speech, but also a criminal offence against the misuse of government office,” Khodorkovsky said in a statement. “I call on foreign law enforcement agencies who are in contact with the representatives of the Russian Prosecutor General’s office to recognize that in reality this office is occupied by a criminal organization… [and] is itself a gross abuser of human rights, in particular the right to freedom of speech.” He has linked the attack to Open Russia’s recently launched project that aims to turn journalistic investigations of corruption and abuses by government officials into legal cases for prosecution.
In the last few weeks, Open Russia activists across the country were questioned by police over their supposed links with “foreign undesirable organizations.” The movement’s national conference in Moscow last week was broken into by police officers on the same pretext. Importantly, even the current Russian law on “foreign undesirable organizations”—repressive and paranoid as it is—does not allow for the blacklisting of Russian NGOs or political groups, such as Open Russia. “The Russian authorities are clearly targeting Open Russia in a bid to suffocate dissent and pluralism in the Russian media and expunge Khodorkovsky’s presence in Russian politics and society,” noted Amnesty International. “The authorities have shown their true intent to target and harass Open Russia out of existence.”
Eighteen years ago, Vladimir Putin began his rule by going after independent television networks with tens of millions of viewers. Today, even unruly political websites with audiences in the hundreds of thousands are apparently too much of a threat. Any alternative source of information must be contained, controlled, or destroyed. Hardly the behavior of a government with a widespread popular support it so often claims.