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19.10.2018 | Halya Coynash

Win a smartphone in Russia by denouncing neighbours for ‘extremism’

Dagestan contest - the one who sends most denunciations wins the smartphones
   

Anonymous denunciations of neighbours or workmates are no longer a bad memory from the Stalin era.  ‘Informing’ the Russian security service [FSB] or authorities of ‘extremist’ or ‘anti-Russian’ activities has long been encouraged, often rewarded, in Russia under President Vladimir Putin, and denunciations, anonymous or otherwise, are also being used to spread fear and distrust in Crimea under Russian occupation.

The authorities in Dagestan have offered an IPhone and two other smartphones as prizes for residents of this Russian Federation republic who send in the most reports of ‘extremist’ publications to their hotline.  Checks will be made, before any smartphones are handed out, but this is no reason for assuming that those denounced need to be guilty of anything.  Although officially the Ministry of Communications and Information wants to know about texts that stir up enmity on religious or ethnic grounds, the ‘Anonymous Hotline’ invites people to “inform about terrorism and extremism on the Internet”.  This, like Russia’s legislation prohibiting the so-called ‘propaganda of extremism’ is dangerously ill-defined and subject to abuse.  The hotline even provides a ‘superman’ cartoon to show prospective denouncers what to do.

According to MBX Media, the above ‘competition’ is part of the ‘Kiberdruzhyna’ project, run with the support of the Dagestan Ministry of Printed Media and Interior Ministry.  Such ‘cyber vigilante groups’ arose out of the so-called ‘Safe Internet League’.  This was formerly created by Konstantin Malofeyev, the Russian businessman under  international sanctions for his major support for Russia’s military aggression against Ukraine.  In fact, in his study into Cyberwarfare, Jeffrey Carr suggests that the League was probably created and backed by the Russian FSB, and it is certainly difficult to find a dividing line between an apparent civic organization and official promotion of informers.  

The League drew up and lobbied through the State Duma a law purporting to protect children from ‘information causing harm to their health and development’.  It was on the basis of this law that Russia’s effective censor Roskomnadzor launched a register of banned websites.  If initially the sites that ended up on the register did so for good reason, this has since changed.  The register now contains MBX Media, LinkedIn and the Telegram Messenger, all blocked by decision of the Prosecutor General’s Office or FSB because of material critical of the Putin regime and / or for their resistance to FSB control.

According to the Safe Internet League, their cyber-druzhyny [vigilante groups] are the League’s youth movement and are made up of over 20 thousand ‘volunteers’ who lodge complaints about supposedly illegal Internet content, particularly focusing on ‘extremism’.

In fact, the League’s Cyber-druzhyny hotline does not open, and so presumably these ‘volunteers’ vigilance is expressed by reporting material to the ‘Safe Internet Centre’.  The latter’s website, including its alarming advice on spotting ‘extremism’, is run with the support of the Russian Federal Agency for Print and Mass Communication.

In August 2018, the project ‘News of the Super State’ reported that a cyber-druzhyna had been created within the Department for Youth Policy of the Sverdlovsk oblast with young people again being encouraged to inform on others writing in the social media.  At that stage there were 150 young people engaged in reporting on other Internet users’ content, ‘likes’ and reposts.  A simple Google search using the word кибердружина [cyber-druzhyna] shows that there are already many such ‘voluntary’ groups.

These activities are likely to be similar to those of two young students from Barnaul, Darya Isayenko and Anastasia Bitner whose denunciations resulted in criminal charges of ‘offending the feelings of believers’ being brought against Maria Motuznaya and Daniil Markin over pictures on the Internet.  MBX Media reports that in that case, and in others, the denunciations have been written at the request of Russia’s so-called Centre for Countering Extremism. 

Russia’s activities in crushing dissent in occupied Crimea suggest that in all such cases, the people prosecuted on the basis of denunciations will probably end up on Russia’s notoriously long ‘List of Extremists and Terrorists’.

In many overtly political cases, denunciations appear to be a pretext for an operation determined at higher level.  This was almost certainly the case with Yuri Dmitriev, historian of Stalin’s Terror, head of the Karelia branch of the Memorial Society and now a Russian political prisoner.  Although it was supposedly Moscow City deputy Dmitry Zakharov who made a denunciation against Natalya Sharina, Director of the Library of Ukrainian Literature in Moscow,  She was eventually convicted of ‘anti-Russian extremism’ in a high-profile case that was obviously linked with the information warfare that accompanied Russia’s aggression against Ukraine.

Even where it was the denunciation that drew the FSB’s attention to a person, there may be serious questions about the motives of those who made them.  This can range from money or career enhancement to person animosity.   The atmosphere of distrust in occupied Crimea has almost certainly been encouraged by the occupation authorities, which have also publicly called on Crimeans to inform on fellow citizens posting leaflets which they label as ‘anti-Russian’ and ‘extremist’.

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