Black Thursday in Moscow

by Rachel Denber Rachel Denber  is Deputy Director of the Europe and Central Asia Division at Human Rights Watch. She specializes in countries of the former Soviet Union. Previously, Denber directed Human Rights Watch's Moscow office and did field research and advocacy in Russia, Georgia, Armenia, Azerbaijan, Kazakhstan, Uzbekistan, Estonia, Ukraine, Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan. She has authored reports on a wide range of human rights issues throughout the region. Denber earned a bachelor's degree from Rutgers University in international relations and a master's degree in political science from Columbia University, where she studied at the Harriman Institute. She speaks Russian and French. 14.03.2014

I do not recall a more dramatic silencing of the media in post-Soviet Russia. First the editor of, an independent, online news service, was fired on March 12, the day the news portal received a warning from Roskomnadzor, the Russian state body for media oversight. The warning was about a link in an article had published about the Ukrainian ultranationalist paramilitary group Right Sektor; the link was to a 2008 interview with one of the group’s leaders. Direct evidence that this caused her to be fired may be difficult to unearth, though’s independent editorial policy no doubt had long irritated the authorities.

Then today Roskomnadzor ordered internet providers to block access within Russia to four more websites that contain content highly critical of the authorities. These include, which had persistently criticized the prosecution of the Bolotnaya protesters, who demonstrated on the eve of President Vladimir Putin’s 2012 inauguration, and, the website of former chess champion and opposition figure Gary Kasparov,, an opposition opinion portal, and opposition leader Alexei Navalny’s Live Journal page.

The prosecutor’s office instructed Roskomnadzor to put the first three of these on a list of websites that allegedly contain banned content and ordered them to be blocked immediately.  Navalny’s blog platform is being blocked immediately because it allegedly violates the terms of his two-month house arrest, which began on February 28.

Navalny also has a blog on the website Echo of Moscow, for many years the most popular independent news service in Russia. Today Roskomnadzor notified internet providers that Navalny’s blog on Echo of Moscow’s website contained banned information. Without waiting for Echo of Moscow to remove the content, several providers began to block access to this anchor of critical reporting in Russia. 

Meanwhile, TV Rain, a pro-opposition cable television station, is off the airwaves and on the brink of bankruptcy due indirectly to a Roskomnadzor warning.

The “Thursday Night Massacre” was made possible by a new law that authorizes the Prosecutor General’s Office to instruct Roskomnadzor to order  an internet provider to block websites within 24 hours if they contain “extremist” content, call for mass riots or call for participation in unauthorized public gatherings.  There is no need to fuss with a court order, or even inform the website.

The law was adopted quietly in December, just as Putin was sprucing up Russia’s image before the Winter Olympics by releasing Mikhail Khodorkovsky and others. That seems like a million years ago.

With Sunday’s referendum in Crimea, Russian troops massed for “exercises” on Ukraine’s eastern border, clashes between pro and anti “Maidan” protesters in Donetsk, Ukraine and anti-Western rhetoric more vicious than I can remember, critics of these alarming events will have almost no platform in Russia to be heard.

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