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Curbing Extreme Freedoms: The Latest Move by the Russian Interior Minister to Control the Internet Has Sparked Fresh Fears of a Clampdown on the Country's Shaky Press Freedom

Fears of an imminent clampdown on press freedom ahead of Russia's national elections may yet prove justified, given a sudden announcement on Wednesday of new amendments to the country's Mass Media Law. "We have introduced amendments to the federal law on mass media, and from now on Internet sites may be considered on certain occasions as media," Russia's Interior Minister Rashid Nurgaliyev was quoted by Itar-Tass as telling a meeting of the Inter-ministerial Commission on Fighting Extremism in Khabarovsk on Wednesday. Nurgaliyev said Russian legislators need to develop a complex set of measures that would enable law enforcement officials to limit the activities of extremist Web sites.

The Russian president appointed Nurgaliyev last month to head an intergovernmental commission tasked with "coordinating the activities" of federal and regional agencies in fighting extremism. The formation of the commission, coming ahead of crucial parliamentary elections in December and presidential elections in March, has stirred fears of an election season crackdown on the political opposition, The Moscow Times reported. Nurgaliyev said on Wednesday that there are currently more than 7,500 Web sites in Russia that operate as hotbeds of extremism. He did not specify, however, which sites he felt should be curbed. "Apart from openly distributing extremist information, some Web sites permit incorrect and sometimes openly hostile statements, which is a manifestation of intolerance toward other nationalities living in our country," Nurgaliyev said.

Nurgaliyev's amendments also appear to be targeting some non-Orthodox religious groups, which are often regarded as "totalitarian sects" or "destructive cults" in Russia. "Russia also has about ten major religious sects," Nurgaliyev said. "This is of particular concern because members of sects often break social connections, they give away their property, and sometimes commit serious and heinous crime," he said, stressing that "it is necessary to work in this direction." Nurgaliyev also noted an increasing wave of violence in some sects, claiming that members of certain sects commit arson at churches and even murders.

Earlier, Nurgaliyev told the gathering that limits must be imposed on the Internet to prevent a slide in traditional cultural values among young people. "It is necessary to work out a set of measures for limiting the activities of certain Internet resources without encroaching on the free exchange of information," Nurgaliyev said, Itar-Tass reported. Nurgaliyev said Russia's youth needed looking after to prevent them from being corrupted by "lopsided" ideas, especially in music, that may undermine traditional values. "It seems to me that the time has long been ripe to carry out monitoring in the country to find out what they are listening to, what they are reading, what they are watching," he was quoted as saying of Russia's youth. "They have forgotten the love songs of old, the waltzes, everything that united us, our background and our roots," the 54-year-old former KGB officer said.

Nurgaliyev's tough stance on extremist Web sites has stoked fears of an aggressive crackdown on press freedom in Russia, where much media is state-run and the Internet remains the last bastions of free speech. Some experts said such tinkering with the country's Mass Media Law goes against President Dmitry Medvedev's promises to bring back openness and transparency. "Freedom is better than lack of freedom," president Medvedev declared in a speech delivered before the Krasnoyarsk Economic Forum in February of 2008, a few months before becoming president. "This principle must be the cornerstone of all our policies.... I mean freedom in all its forms­personal freedom, economic freedom and freedom of expression."

Though Nurgaliyev's statements are being interpreted here as attempts to test the waters ahead of national elections, his was not the only outburst against freedom of expression in recent months. In April, Alexander Andreyechkin, the chief of the Russia's Federal Security Service's Information Security and Special Communications department, told a government meeting that encrypted communications providers such as Gmail, Hotmail and Skype "pose a large-scale threat to Russia's security" and proposed to ban them, Russian news agencies reported. Commentators saw the comments as an attempt by authorities to tighten controls on communications before parliamentary elections in December and a presidential vote in March. The Kremlin has since rejected the proposal, which followed hard on the heels of major cyber attacks on Russia's most popular blogging site and the Web site of a popular independent newspaper in April.

But that rejection has so far failed to dispel any lingering feelings of unease within the Russian Internet community. "There's is little appetite for digesting criticism in Russia," Ilya Varlamov, a prominent blogger and photographer, said. "This is why the authorities have always expressed desire to control and micro-manage the Internet." However, Varlamov believes that Nurgaliyev's amendment would fail to achieve the desired goal, as blogging in Russia technically does not fall under Russia's Mass Media Law. "As far as my photographs and blogs on LiveJournal are concerned, they are being hosted on servers in the United States. I am glad the hoary hands of the Interior Ministry cannot reach them." Internet news guru Anton Nossik agreed: "I believe Nurgaliyev is expressing a personal opinion about something clearly beyond his competence," Nossik said. "The interior minister is certainly not appointed to take charge of youth morals, more so the complicated arena of the Internet."

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