Russian human rights activist Pavel Chekhov, 43, says police are stopping people on the street from checking their mobile phones.
He is sure that Vladimir Putin would have preferred to shut down the Internet completely – but now the president has more than enough other things to think about:
– Of course, Putin prefers to shut down the Internet. As it is, says Chekhov, Putin and the Internet are just as different – and he shows this by extending his arms in every direction. He is in Norway to participate in events sponsored by, among others, Free Ord and the Helsinki Committee.
Putin does not use the Internet and does not like the Internet. And the Internet does not like Putin. So Putin would have preferred not to have the Internet. But he can’t. The internet will likely be around longer than Putin, Chekhov says, without pulling the tape.
His organization “Agora” was officially banned by the authorities in 2016. Two years earlier, he and “Agora” were awarded the prestigious Raffto Prize. Chekhov was the leading spokesperson for human rights in Russia.
– I am convinced that Putin still uses the old landlines and paper documents he receives from his people. He and the Internet belong to two different centuries.
Why is it better to cut off the internet?
– Because he was a constant danger to him and his inner circle, but I doubt he was able to shut him down.
Since the invasion of Ukraine, Russia has blocked access to Facebook, Instagram, and Twitter to anyone with Russian IP addresses.
Telegrams are used frequently. Chekhov says there is no indication that they are passing the information on to the authorities.
Stop people in the street
On the other hand, it can tell us about cases where police officers stop people on the street or at border crossings and ask to look at their phones.
– They check if people have Telegram channels that have more information about the Ukraine war than state propaganda. They are looking through people’s Telegram account. So we advise our people to delete these things if they want to cross the border.
– Why would they do that?
Its purpose is mostly to create fear and to seek stronger self-censorship. Because there are no direct consequences, at least not yet. They don’t want you to have alternative information about the system and thus become more critical of them.
Galina Timchenko, who is now the managing director of Russia’s largest independent media outlet, Medusa, agrees with Chekhov:
– Yes, they want to shut down the Internet, but I am not sure if they have the ability to do so, neither financially nor technically. And the penalties are not improving.
She and her editorial staff fled Russia eight years ago – after the annexation of Crimea. She is also in Norway as a guest at the Freight Ord Foundation. medusa – Like many other “illegal” Russian media – it is based in Latvia.
They are concerned first and foremost that it should not be possible to obtain information from independent sources. It is a disaster for independent thinkers who desperately want objective and correct information.
Meduza is blocked for internet users in Russia, but people know the advice: they use a foreign VPN connection and thus can access the website.
– There have been a lot of readers from Holland and France lately.
How do you think people can be stopped in the street to check their phones?
– It’s a sign of a totalitarian regime. This regime has changed its mask. They stopped pretending to be authoritarian.
Why do they check people’s phones?
– First of all to see your contact list. They have a special app that they use for this. This is dangerous, because they can extract a lot of information about you and your contacts in this way.
The protests have taken control
Johan Kalsas, PhD fellow in Russian Media and Communication at the University of Bergen, explains the big pictures:
For many years, freedom of expression on the Internet was greater than in the traditional media. When the major demonstrations against election fraud ten years ago, the internet and social media were central as Alexei Navalny and others mobilized the masses. Then the Russian authorities woke up. They realize what a powerful political mobilizing power the Web can have – and that they have to do something about it.
Kalsaas talks about the Sovereign Internet Law – which gives Russian authorities the opportunity to shut down websites and monitor all traffic that passes over the Internet.
It is about gaining national state control over the Russian Internet. The online infrastructure has been nationalized so that the authorities control and can monitor the digital lives of the population. The Internet has been transformed into a place controlled by the state.
The PhD fellow explains that 2021 was a historically black year for freedom of expression in Russia, especially the Internet.
Independent media were good at using the Internet, but were labeled “foreign agents” and demonized – making the Internet as a source of independent information narrower and narrower.
lost breathing space
Johan Kalsas explains that in the lead-up to the war, journalists and activists had their computers and cell phones searched.
– When the war broke out, Facebook, Instagram and Twitter were blocked. Meta, the company behind Facebook, has been described as an “extremist organisation”.
– How important is this?
The international podiums were one of their last respite. Russia has its own social programs, but they are under much greater control. Therefore, global social media has been a haven, a respite from the state and a place of privacy and protection very different from the Russians, who may be required to disclose information about their users to the authorities, if they request it.
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