‘We'll have to play this guessing game again’ How anti-Putin graffiti triggered the first enforcement of Russia's new ban on insulting the government online — and the ethical mess that followed
For several days in April, Russia’s federal censor, Roskomnadzor, blocked two of the most popular local media outlets in Yaroslavl: Yarcube and 76.ru. Both outlets’ editors had refused to comply with the agency’s unofficial request to delete a news story describing a police search for unknown individuals who painted the words “Putin is a fag” on the front of the region’s Internal Affairs Ministry building. The journalists believe that they were a kind of test case for Russia’s new law penalizing “disrespect toward the government,” which took effect less than one month ago. Meduza special correspondent Andrey Pertsev learned that the government agencies who blocked Yarcube and 76.ru made up their own wording to justify their demands as legal requests and that the editors-in-chief who rejected those requests thought at first that the entire thing was an April Fool’s prank.
Roskomnadzor bureaucrats made unofficial calls to the offices of Yaroslavl’s media outlets
On April 1, Yarcube Editor-in-Chief Marina Sedneva went to the Neft movie theater in Yaroslavl to see the film We Declare Spring on You, a documentary about political activism in Yaroslavl between 2011 and 2013 and funded by local donors. The screening was an adventure in itself: when the power went out, viewers were forced to navigate the theater by candlelight while the film played from a portable projector powered by a benzene generator.
Sedneva was also distracted by a series of calls to her cell phone from an unfamiliar number. “At first, I didn’t take them, and then I sent a text saying I would call back later. I called back, and the man who answered said he was Yevgeny Ofitserov, the head of the local Roskomnadzor branch. He asked me to delete the story. What do you mean, delete? On what basis?” the journalist said, still surprised by the unusual request. The story the “local Roskomnadzor head” wanted Sedneva to delete said that police had begun searching for the individual or individuals who had written an insult directed at Vladimir Putin on the regional Internal Affairs Ministry building. Sedneva continued to ask questions: what law was broken? What will happen if the story is not deleted? She said the man who called her could not explain anything clearly. “I told my colleagues about that call, and they laughed and told me not to take it seriously because it was April 1,” Yarcube’s editor-in-chief said.
It soon became clear that similar calls had been made to editors-in-chief of other Yaroslavl outlet that had posted stories about the graffiti case or photographs of the graffiti itself. 76.ru editor Olga Prokhorova recalled that on March 31, several regional Roskomnadzor employees called her within a short stretch of time. “The head of the branch called himself, and I could tell he was surprised and confused. I understood that this initiative was coming from higher up. We have a good relationship with the local RKN [Roskomnadzor]. I speak regularly with the official who’s responsible for media outlets, and she gives us advice. After the call, I met with Yevgeny Ofitserov and talked to him. You never know who might call you from an unknown number and ask you to take something down. I gave him the number, and he confirmed that it was his,” Prokhorova said. She added that during the phone conversation and during her in-person meeting with Ofitserov, which took place in mid-April, she was repeatedly asked to delete the story, but “they couldn’t clearly explain the reason why.” “There were hints: you know, the law on insulting the government is taking effect, the Prosecutor General’s office could get involved,” she said.
In both 76.ru’s brief and Yarcube’s story, the graffiti was not quoted. 76.ru blurred out the entirety of the offending second word in the photo posted on its site, and in Yarcube’s version, only the last letter was visible.
In a phone interview, I asked Yevgeny Ofitserov who had initiated the preventative calls to the local outlets. He answered, “Why does it matter on whose initiative I called? Read Article 49 of the federal statute on media, where it says that journalists are ‘obligated to respect the rights, legal interests, honor, and dignity of citizens and organizations.’” To face legal consequences for violating that statute, a media outlet must face a lawsuit for violating another party’s honor and dignity or be charged with slander. Only after a court decision is Roskomnadzor entitled to block the materials at hand. No court decisions have been reported in the case of the anti-Putin graffiti, and Ofitserov did not explain how else an effort to block content could be initiated on the basis of the law he cited.
On the evening of April 1, Yarcube received an email signed by Roskomnadzor and demanding that the story in question be taken down within 24 hours. Marina Sedneva clarified that “in terms of form,” the letter was not “an official notice”: it did not detail any reasons for deleting the story. Yarcube’s editor-in-chief said that the address that sent the email could indeed belong to Roskomnadzor because the agency had previously used it to ask the outlet’s editors to take down obscene reader comments on its site. “I had a serious question to deal with: what is to be done? We can’t take down the story publicly. How could we explain why we did such a thing to our readers? A call from RKN is no proper reason. We have laws that detail that entire procedure. Deleting a story because of a call isn’t acting because of the law, it’s acting because of some implicit understanding. We don’t work with implicit understandings,” Sedneva said.
Olga Prokhorova also thought deeply about how she might respond to an official government agency’s unofficial request to delete a news story. “Could I take down material based on hints? No, I could not. On one hand, the hints made it clear that they were asking us to take it down. On the other hand, there were official documents that didn’t make anything clear. And it should be the other way around,” she explained.
The Yaroslavl branch of the news agency Regnum did not publish a story about the graffiti at all. “This wasn’t a political act; it was hooliganism. If it had said ‘Putin is a thief’ or ‘Putin is digging Russia’s grave,’ it would have been a different story. But that graffiti was an insult, and we knew that the law on insulting the government was already in effect,” said Alexey Yakovlev, the lead editor of Regnum’s local branch.
For the editors of several other Yaroslavl media outlets that found the graffiti important enough to cover, a phone conversation with Roskomnadzor representatives did the trick: the stories about the graffiti were quickly deleted from their websites. “The story was about the appearance of this graffiti. The call from Roskomnadzor went to our advertising department, and they came to me and told me about it,” said Vladislav Kuimov, the lead editor of Argumenty i Fakty v Yaroslavle. “The situation was confusing: the law on insulting the government had taken effect on March 29, and how it was supposed to work wasn’t clear. Deleting news is a very bad thing, but a conflict with RKN is also a very bad thing, as what happened to Yarcube demonstrates. They were [ultimately] blocked for something totally unrelated to insulting the government.”
Yarcube’s website was blocked on the morning of April 11. A Roskomnadzor decision dated April 9, 2019, indicates that the story that triggered that move was a 2018 piece about a young man who fell out of a window. Yarcube’s editor-in-chief said that she did not receive any official notification from the agency. “We learned that we were blocked from our readers. Once again, we did not receive any official notifications,” Marina Sedneva said. She found Roskomnadzor’s notification herself in the agency’s registry of blocked websites and started “bombing RKN and our provider with letters” saying that the editorial board had removed public access to the 2018 story. “They told me that they weren’t getting any letters,” Sedneva said. The site was blocked for three days before it came back online on April 14.
According to Sedneva, the text of the story that evidently led Roskomnadzor to block Yarcube’s site “was based on a press release from the Investigative Committee that about 14 other media outlets cited in the exact same words. They didn’t face any suspicions. It might not even have been a suicide attempt — the teenager had autism, and he survived.” Roskomnadzor had attempted to justify its decision by claiming that the story might encourage suicide. “After we were blocked, I sent a request to the prosecutors to find out how that case had ended, whether it was really a suicide attempt. They sent me to the Internal Affairs Ministry. I sent them a message, and I’m still waiting for a response,” Sedneva said. She added that targeting a year-old news story looks even stranger given that the site had posted “a far more recent story about a suicide case in a prison colony.” She believes the decision to block the site stemmed from the editorial board’s unwillingness to delete the graffiti story.
“Everyone has that kind of news, and RKN always spared them, but it seems that was only true for the time being,” Argumenty i Fakty v Yaroslavle editor Vladislav Kuimov mused.
When Roskomnadzor blocked stories about the anti-Putin graffiti, it cited an entirely irrelevant law
On April 12, a day after Yarcube was blocked, another Yaroslavl news site, 76.ru, faced the same fate. Editor-in-chief Olga Prokhorova immediately checked her email: she hadn’t missed a single message, and a letter is required to accompany website bans by law. Internet service providers are supposed to send one after they receive a message from Roskomnadzor, and the media source in question is supposed to have a day to undo the violation it has committed. “It wasn’t there. The document only arrived on the morning of April 13,” Prokhorova said. The notification said that a news story on the site included information that indecently expressed clear disrespect to society, the government, the official government symbols of the Russian Federation, the Constitution of the Russian Federation, or the agencies that carry state power in the Russian Federation. The piece was described in Roskomnadzor’s official document, which is in Meduza’s possession, as follows: “A photograph is included that depicts the building that houses the Internal Affairs Ministry of the Russian Federation for Yaroslavl Oblast with uncensored writing on its walls targeting the president of the Russian Federation as well as comments on [that writing].”
In Roskomnadzor’s registry of websites that include banned information, the cause for blocking 76.ru was labeled as an April 11, 2019, decision by Russia’s Prosecutor General’s Office. The same decision, it turns out, also mentioned the story on Yarcube, which had already been blocked by that time for the story about the adolescent boy’s fall. However, neither outlet was informed about that decision. Ultimately, both deleted the photograph of the Internal Affairs Ministry building with the blurred-out graffiti but left the text of the news stories as they were. That turned out to be enough to divert the government’s attention, and both sites were unblocked.
However, the notification Roskomnadzor ultimately sent to 76.ru was written incorrectly. The agency cited Article 15.1 of Russia’s federal law “On Information,” but insulting the government is part of a different, newer statute, Article 15.1-1. That statute indicates that a news outlet will be given 24 hours after “immediate” notification to delete the materials in question. Rather than sending the notification to the outlet’s provider, Roskomnadzor wrote directly to the outlet itself and even copied its owner, the company Hearst Shkulev Media, which was not required by law.
Olga Prokhorova of 76.ru was frustrated at the agency’s actions: “[Roskomnadzor Press Secretary Vadim] Ampelonsky is talking about preventative measures, but this doesn’t seem preventative to me: they’re calling from unfamiliar numbers and then blocking us before giving us official notification.” Ampelonsky had described his agency’s actions in Yaroslavl as a way of testing its new authorities under Russia’s recently enacted Internet speech laws.
Journalists are also concerned about the fact that they do not know how to avoid being blocked in the future. The official information Roskomnadzor has released has not enabled them to understand what about the news stories about the graffiti seemed like “insulting the government” to the Prosecutor General’s Office. “We have worked, are working, and want to work within the bounds of the law, but now we don’t know how to do that,” Prokhorova said. “We had to guess, and we’ve been savvy so far — we were able to guess that the problem was with the photograph of the graffiti, but if something more subtle comes up, we’ll have to play this guessing game again.”
She believes that authorities are “breaking in that law [about insulting the government]” on Yaroslavl’s media outlets. Marina Sedneva holds the same belief: “They had just passed the law, and this fitting case came along. It was a chance to work out a scheme.” Olga Prokhorova and Marina Sedneva both consider the law itself to be extremely vague, and they believe that its lack of clear criteria for “insulting the government” could lead to strict self-censorship among media outlets, especially those working in the provinces.
“If some newsmaker says that the government in the Kirov District of Yaroslavl isn’t doing a good job, is that insulting the government? People rallied with signs that said ‘The governor is a Viking’ — is that an insult? In the summer and the fall, there were protests against waste storage facilities, and the posters were all over the place. What are we supposed to do — blur them all out in the photos just in case?” Yarcube’s editor speculated. Olga Prokhorova described the risks journalists could now face as follows: “At first, you’re afraid of five letters, and then you’re afraid of the rest. Then you’re afraid of the president’s last name, and then the last name of some minor official. After all, there are people who deleted their stories just because of a phone call even though that’s the wrong thing to do.”
On April 18, the BBC Russian Service reported on a closed-door meeting between representatives of Roskomnadzor and the Prosecutor General’s Office along with the leaders of several federal news outlets. During the meeting, RKN representatives said they would call phrases like “United Russia is the party of crooks and thieves” or “Putin is a thief” insults to the government. The agency’s employees did say that each individual case in which such phrases were quoted would have to be considered individually and that the Prosecutor General’s Office would make the final call.
Marina Sedneva would like to sue Roskomnadzor for its actions to “clarify what exactly they thought was an insult, to make them carry out an investigation,” but her outlet is small enough that it has not yet been able to hire a lawyer who could compile a lawsuit well. Her colleague from 76.ru does not intend to go to court: Prokhorova suggested that government officials consider “some kind of temporary scheme” that would allow media outlets to understand “what exact kinds of material can fall under suspicion so they can think about what they can do.” She added, “There should be time for conversations, negotiations [with government agencies], and it should feel like a consultation, not like pressure.”
Regnum’s Alexey Yakovlev called Roskomnadzor’s actions “unprofessional” and “disproportionate”: “There is a course of action prescribed by law that includes notifications and warnings, not telephone conversations and bans that take effect before [outlets are] notified.” Vladislav Kuimov from Yaroslavl’s branch of Argumenty i Fakty said that decisions about which kinds of information insult the government and which do not should be based on linguistic inspections: “That’s how they define extremism, after all, and right now, we have no idea how we’re supposed to work.”
Olga Prokhorova argues that the graffiti story didn’t draw much interest from Yaroslavl’s residents: “There were posts that had a lot more views, but after it was blocked, that piece about the graffiti attracted five times more people.” Yakovlev concluded, “Now every dog out there knows what was written on that Internal Affairs building. Putin is the main victim in this situation.”
Translation by Hilah Kohen