Novoblogika Discussion: Regulating the Blogosphere

Our last day at Interra featured what I expected to become my personal highlight. A public discussion on “regulating behavior in the blogosphere – necessity and possibility” promised a great opportunity to exchange views on censorship. Since we just had – and still have – a huge discussion about internet censorship in Germany, I was eager to learn about the situation in Russia.

On Friday, Marco had already interviewed Ilia Kabanov. While at first planned as an interview on youth participation, the talk soon shifted to freedom of expression in Russia. “At the moment we are safe. But we don’t know what will be tomorrow”, Kabanov summed up the feelings of Russian bloggers.

In other words, this sentence popped up in the discussion as well. While there are cases in which bloggers have had quarrels with the authorities, up to now they could always get out of it safely – except for Savva Terentyev, who received a one-year suspended sentence for promoting the public burning of policemen (well, you could also say it was the punishment for extraordinary public stupidity). But as there are plenty of laws that limit freedom of speech in Russia, the bloggers have to live with the constant threat of being targeted by the authorities in future.

Right at the beginning of the discussion, both me and Ilia Staheev lashed out against all efforts to regulate the blogosphere. This provoked an incident that was both funny and useful. One woman, introduced to me as a professor from one of Russia’s best journalism academies in Moscow, angrily stood up to respond to our claims. My translator summed up the woman’s stance in just one sentence: “Why are you against the state?”

Indeed, neither Ilia nor me are against the state. I had spoken about how the social web means that for the first time there is a truly democratic media sphere, and how this makes it unacceptable that any authority may regulate the blogosphere from above. But obviously, the views expressed by us bloggers were far to liberal for this old school journalist. After speaking up a second time, lashing out against bloggers, she left the room – not without asking not to discuss her stances.

While this is a truly childish behavior, the incident was indeed a lucky one for us. As Ilia later told me, “if we didn’t have this woman in the audience we would have to invite such people”. Which is, as I’ve experienced quite regularly, nearly impossible.

To me, it is especially interesting that the woman as a journalist spoke out so broadly in support of the state. Should not journalism be independent from political authorities? In fact, if it is not, we can’t deem it anything else than propaganda. So why did she say so?

As I said later in the discussion, it is not the state that has to fear bloggers, and neither does media. Simply because we are the state, and we are the media. But elites do. And so, when supporting the state’s role in regulating the blogosphere, saying it was keeping up the order, I think the woman was defending her own position as a part of the journalistic elite.

There is a famous quote by German journalist Paul Sethe: “Press freedom is the freedom of 200 rich people to spread their opinion”. It is the fear of those 200 people that this old school journalist expressed: The fear that they will loose a freedom that is based on a monopoly. And indeed the blogosphere as a part of the democratization of media will lead to a downfall of journalistic elites, just as grassroots democracy would, if implemented appropriately, mean the end to political elites. But anybody who deems freedom of expression worth more than their individual power – and I can’t imagine a good journalist who doesn’t do so – will welcome this change.

From there on, the discussion decreased more and more to become what I would rather describe as a speech by Anton Nossik. The organizers spoke of him as “the most important Russian blogger”. Maybe that’s true. But certainly he would be a great hakawati. Talking for what seemed hours, switching from one topic to the other, lining up anecdotes like pearls on a necklace, Anton lectured audience and discussants. While there was little to say to contradict his positions, intellectual brilliance doesn’t make up for good manners.

In fact, the discussion desperately needed a moderator. That’s especially true because Marco and me always had to wait for the translation (the whole discussion, just as all other events, was held in Russian), making it impossible for us to interject the other participants.

After all, I was rather disappointed of the discussion, especially since most of it was none. Additionally, huge parts of the talk dealt with topics such as the subjectivity of statements deemed offensive. I had hoped for a debate that would center more on the relationship between political and economical powers and bloggers and deal with the measures that bloggers can use to defend themselves against censorship and repression.

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