News / 24.06.2013

Civic journalism blooms in Russia

Linus Atarah

Parliament of the Russian Federation has just passed a new blasphemy law allowing jail sentences of up to three years for "offending religious feelings”. The law against blasphemy comes at the heels of another law passed earlier banning the propagation of gay “propaganda” which also carries heavy fines if convicted.

Civil society activists inside the country have decried the laws as further prove of the Russian authorities determination to clamp down on press freedom and destroy civil society organisations.

“These laws are a war against civil society by the Russian authorities”, says Andrey Kalikh, Programme Director of the Russian-based Centre for the Development of Democracy and Human Rights in a recent Nordic Freelance seminar.

The theme of this year’s three-day seminar was Beyond the Borders”, focusing on media and human rights issues in Russia.

Kalikh says the continuous assault on media freedoms in Russia has created a robust civic journalism which is emerging to take up the void left by lack of independent media.

According to him, thousands of blogs and independent websites are increasingly becoming popular sources of alternative information in Russia.

“They cover the real life situations of ordinary people including of course, their grievances, news which doesn’t appear in the official media”, says Kalikh.

By his definition, civic journalism is citizens informing other citizens, journalists, state authorities and the rest of society about the problems they see around them and issues which worry them.

“It is when the citizens and not the media become independent sources of information and expertise; it is when citizens become journalists”, says Kalikh.

“Civic journalism is the only real independent journalism in Russia because the other media outlets are not fully independent”, he says.

The civic journalists operate mainly via blogs. Thousands of bloggers come together to try to raise public awareness on the issues and problems confronting the society. They highlight on human rights violations, public campaigns and protest movements, issues neglected by the mainstream media.

The outside world also gets informed about events in the country which is otherwise not reported in the mainstream media, says Kalikh.

Unlike the mainstream which requires large funding and sponsorship, civic journalism requires very little resources; basically a laptop and a free internet connection and no need for newsprint.

Kalikh says a prerequisite for the emergence of civic journalism in Russia is the lack of independent media and a sense of fear which has curbed journalistic freedom, and so citizens are forced to become independent sources of information.

Apart from the new blasphemy and anti-gay propaganda laws there is also a law which allows the police to shut down websites without court decision – all part of a trend which violates basic freedoms guaranteed by the constitution.

According to Kalikh, the introduction of harsh laws goes along with what he calls a strategy of “negative mobilisation” by the Kremlin.

With Putin losing public support, he says, the new strategy relies on mobilisation the most conservative, nationalistic, xenophobic, imperial, and anti-western sectors of the society. These are the new base of the Putin regime.

It also employs anti-western rhetoric on television, portraying Russia as a fortress under siege while portraying NGOs, and independent media as enemies.

But Kalikh is optimistic that civil journalists will become the leading force in the opposition movement in Russia in the future, even though he acknowledges that as activities of civil journalists gain more strength so will the official persecution increase.

According to him, no one can shut down the internet, neither is it possible to entirely gag people’s freedom speech and freedom of conscience.

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