Freedom of expression is an essential cornerstone of any democratic society. Constructive dialogue is only achieved when ideas of all types, however unfavourable, are discussed and valued. In a modern democracy, ideas are communicated in three main domains – through traditional media outlets, in public demonstrations and over the internet. In Russia, the opportunity for free expression is being thwarted in all three arenas of dialogue.
Under Putin government legislation has seen the content of mainstream media become dispiritingly predictable. Fines and penalties are levied on media not conforming to the Kremlin’s political narrative. As a result, independent outlets have either closed down due to lack of funds or been forced into self-censorship. The remaining mainstream media companies are either state controlled or funded by government loyalists, effectively silencing the voice of the opposition.
During the 2013 Moscow mayoral elections, for example, the RIA media company would often quote Alexei Navalny, the anti-government candidate, in its campaign news reports. Needless to say Putin’s deputy chief of staff, Alexei Gromov, directly contacted the agency’s editor-in-chief warning her that a state news agency must not work against the state’s own interests by promoting the opposition.
However, the internet has presented Putin’s opposition with a new platform to challenge the government. At the end of 2011, mass anti-government protests were organised through social media, highlighting the effectiveness of the internet as a tool for political mobilisation. In response to these demonstrations, the government introduced new legislation allowing them to censor and block internet content and in recent times has introduced significant restrictions on online speech.
Online space for the public debate of sensitive issues, such as Syria, Ukraine and LGBT rights, has begun to shrink and people have even been arrested for blogging their views. In the same way that media companies were forced into self-censorship, members of the public have become increasingly insecure about limits of acceptable speech. Combine this with the spate of arrests at the recent nationwide anti-corruption protests and it becomes clear that the opportunity for public dialogue is being stifled in all spheres.
Putin’s brand of authoritarianism treats freedom of expression not as a right but as an impediment. This ‘we-know-best’ policing of anti-government ideas reflects the insecurity of Putin’s government. 20th-century political history tells you that fear mongering and the suppression of dialogue are the foundations on which oppressive political regimes are built. The Russian people must be granted their right to receive and spread all types of information.