We the screamers

In my work as a journalism lecturer, I am increasingly struck by the fact that many students don’t read books. By this I don’t mean they don’t read – they read all the time, constantly scrolling on their phones, laptops and devices. I mean physical books. As for newspapers: forget it. For this reason, I have taken to reading to them. I tell them to put their phones away (which some find almost impossible), to close their laptops and… listen. I don’t ask them to sit in a circle on the carpet, but it’s not far short of that… it is a moment for meditation, what some have come to call mindfulness.  I have read them all sorts of authors: Orwell, Conrad, the great Dutch journalist Geert Mak, Joan Didion. They wriggle and fidget, but in the end their breathing calms down, their faces relax, and they sit and listen.

And I am going to do the same with you today. You are all busy people so I won’t ask you to put away your phones and devices, but I will ask you to listen as I read to you from one of the most celebrated authors of the 20th century, Arthur Koestler. Perhaps not so widely read today, Koestler was best known for his anti-totalitarian novel Darkness at Noon, but was also a prolific journalist and essay writer. This essay, On Disbelieving Atrocities, is from a collection of essays called the Yogi and the Commissar, published in 1944. The essay itself was originally published in the New York Times under the title The Nightmare That is a Reality. He describes the “mania” he feels when telling the world about Nazi atrocities. “We, the screamers, have been at it now for about ten years,” he says. But the screamers are struggling to be heard. 

“We said that if you don’t quench those flames at once, they will spread all over the world; you thought we were maniacs. At present we have the mania of trying to tell you about the killing, by hot steam, mass-electrocution and live burial of the total Jewish population of Europe. So far three million have died. It is the greatest mass-killing in recorded history; and it goes on daily, hourly, as regularly as the ticking of your watch. I have photographs before me on the desk while I am writing this, and that accounts for my emotion and bitterness. People died to smuggle them out of Poland; they thought it was worthwhile. The facts have been published in pamphlets, White Books, newspapers, magazines and what not.

But the other day I met one of the best-known American journalists over here. He told me that in the course of some recent public opinion survey nine out of ten average American citizens, when asked whether they believed that the Nazis commit atrocities, answered that it was all propaganda lies, and that they didn’t believe a word of it. As to this country, I have been lecturing now for three years to the troops and their attitude is the same. They don’t believe in concentration camps, they don’t believe in the starved children of Greece, in the shot hostages of France, in the mass-graves of Poland; they have never heard of Lidice, Treblinka or Belzec; you can convince them for an hour, then they shake themselves, their mental self-defence begins to work and in a week the shrug of incredulity has returned like a reflex temporarily weakened by a shock.” 

Koestler’s words still have the power to shock 80 years later… 

I have been proud over the years to be something of a screamer — for the Observer, the New Statesman and most prominently as the journalist portrayed in the Hollywood film Official Secrets (dir. Gavin Hood 2019). 

I now work as editor-at-large for Index on Censorship, initially set up in 1972 to publish and promote the work of dissident writers from behind the Iron Curtain. There has never been more for us to scream about. The atrocity deniers are everywhere: suggesting that outrages committed by Iran, Russia, Belarus, China are mere Western propaganda. We saw it on October 7th and we see it in Gaza. 

My favourite screamer (and Koestler’s heir in some ways) is the journalist and academic Peter Pomerantsev. His second book, This Is Not Propaganda: Adventures in the War Against Reality (2019), should be required reading on all journalism (and public relations) courses. Pomerantsev comes from the same tradition as Index — his parents were Soviet dissidents arrested for “distributing harmful literature”. He warns that Putin’s Russia has ushered in a new age of atrocity denial driven by the troll farms of St Petersburg. 

His family’s experience gives Pomerantsev a personal, visceral respect for objective truth, facts, reality. He tells the story of the legendary dissident publication The Chronicle of Current events. 

“The Chronicle was how Soviet dissidents documented suppressed facts about political arrests, interrogations, searches, trials, beatings, abuses in prison. Information was gathered via word of mouth or smuggled out of labour camps in tiny self-made polythene capsules that were swallowed and then shat out, their contents typed up and photographed in dark rooms. It was then passed from person to person, hidden in the pages of books and diplomatic pouches, until it could reach the West and be delivered to Amnesty International, or broadcast on the BBC World Service, Voice of America or Radio Free Europe.” (This Is Not Propaganda, p 2)

Where does this leave us? We who are committed to telling the truth. We who respect facts. Are we listening to the screamers?  

On the plane to Zurich, I was given my complimentary copies of Forbes and Vanity Fair and the answer was right there. Vanity Fair carried an article about Alexei Navalny, who grew to prominence through his exposure of corruption in Putin’s Russia, while the cover of Forbes was devoted to the Boeing whistleblower John Barnett. We perhaps need to start thinking about whistleblowers as corporate dissidents, as truthtellers, not subversives to be closed down. 

Because Navalny and Barnett are both, in their way, screamers.

This is the transcript of a speech made to a meeting of chief communications officers from leading global companies in Zurich

Navalny told them not to give up – and they didn’t

“Don’t go over there,” a woman warned Yaroslav Smolev – artist and musician – as he was approaching the monument to victims of Soviet-era repression in St Petersburg. He then saw the police arresting people who, like him, came to lay flowers. One of the men had his arms twisted by the officers. This was on 16 February, the day Russian opposition leader Alexei Navalny died, and hundreds of people came to honour him at improvised memorials.

Smolev, who spoke to Index four days later, said that the police were pushing mourners away from the monument. We found ourselves standing [at a distance], not knowing what to do or where to go from there,” he said.

But despite the brutality of the police, he recalled seeing “mountains of flowers” at the memorial.

The next day Smolev staged a solo protest in the city centre holding a sign which read “Navalny was killed because we didn’t care.” He felt that he had to speak up, remembering Alexei Navalny who “always stood up for what he believed in – in a peaceful way”.

“I knew that I wouldn’t be allowed to stand there for a long time,” Smolev said. Some people walking by gave him sympathetic looks. One woman approached him and said: “Thank you for speaking up.”

Shortly afterwards, he was taken to the police station. The officers threatened to forcibly take his fingerprints and measurements. According to Smolev, they didn’t have the right to request these. “They said: ‘If you refuse, we will put you upside down, and get all the prints we need, from the top of your head to your heels’,” he told Index.

An officer threatened to throw him in a detention cell for “disobedience”. He told Smolev: “Handsome men like you are always in high demand [among the inmates in jail].”

Smolev had to advocate for himself as all the lawyers were busy that day. He refused to give in and was released three hours later. He would have to pay a fine of about 4,000 rubles ($44) for “violation of anti-COVID measures” – for standing on a sidewalk with a sign.

Smolev said that above all he fears that his home will be targeted now, like was the case after his peaceful protests in the past.

According to Dmitri Anisimov, a spokesman for OVD-Info, an organisation monitoring repression in Russia, at least 462 Navalny mourners were detained across the country, almost half of them in St Petersburg alone. No less than 78 were jailed up to 15 days. In some cases, people were not allowed to see their lawyers. Echoing Smolev’s story, Anisimov told Index that if the detained found themselves face-to-face with the police officers, anything could happen to them. At least six people were beaten up during their detention. Anisimov said that the police also handed out draft notices to some men who came to the improvised memorials for Navalny. Later these papers turned out to be fake. It’s one of the various intimidation tactics used by the authorities, he said.

At least 15 mourners were detained days after they came to the memorials, at their homes or on public transportation. Many of them were “in a state of shock” because they were unprepared for this, Anisimov said. According to him, they had been tracked through a system of surveillance cameras. Some of the people Index was going to speak to got scared off after these “delayed detentions”.

During the days following Navalny’s death, dozens of volunteers provided support for those detained and given jail time. Ekaterina, a 28-year-old democracy activist, was one of them.

Talking to Index from St Petersburg, she said that many people were placed in remote detention centres. She brought food for the detained: “Some bread, sausages, cheese, a little bit of sweets and water.”

She has been doing this volunteer work for two years, since she was detained during the anti-war protests which followed the full-scale invasion of Ukraine. She told Index that people awaiting trial in detention centres are not fed properly – if at all – and are not always able to access tap water.

For Ekaterina, even though it may seem that with Navalny now gone all hope is lost, people “must continue searching for hope within each other”. “We need to help people who are still alive,” she added. “People such as political prisoners.”

When Navalny died on 16 February, she came to an impromptu memorial in St. Petersburg. There were no police around at that moment. “People came and came,” she recalled and she “got a chance to stand there and cry.”

The same day, a woman in Rostov-on-Don, around 1,800 km south of St Petersburg, also came to leave flowers in memory of Navalny at the monument to the victims of political repressions.

“There were so many police officers,” she said speaking to Index anonymously. The buses for the detained were parked next to the memorial and the police were filming people who brought bouquets. “I realised that nothing good would come out of it for me,” she said. “Call me a coward, but I decided to turn around and leave.”

Two days later the woman found out that the apartment where she is officially registered – but doesn’t live – was targeted. A police officer came to give her “some kind of warning”. She suspects that the authorities might have identified her by the car license plate while she was at the memorial – and now they are looking for her.

One of her friends, whom she had warned about the risks, came to the memorial for Navalny later that day. He was ordered by the police to write a letter of explanation stating reasons for his presence at the site.

“There are no mass killings by the authorities, nor people being hanged – but it feels that way,” the woman said. “We are so frightened that we don’t dare utter a single word, and I was too scared to even lay flowers!,” she added, outraged.

Despite this “climate of terror and fear”, as she called it, she empathised that there were many people at the memorial, who felt that it was their duty to honor Navalny.

“I think that Navalny was right when he said in a documentary about him that [if the authorities  decide to kill him it means that] we’re incredibly strong,” Ekaterina, the democracy activist, told Index.

In the film his main message to the Russian people was “not to give up”.

Russia’s attack on internet freedom: “There is a lot of room for making things worse”

A 2012 protest against internet censorship in St. Petersburg (Image: Mike Kireev/Demotix)

A 2012 protest against internet censorship in St. Petersburg (Image: Mike Kireev/Demotix)

It’s been a bad week for the internet in Russia. On Monday, the founder and CEO of VKontakte — “Russian Facebook” — claimed to have been pushed out and that Putin loyalists are now in charge of the site. On Tuesday, the Duma adopted controversial amendments to an information law, targeting bloggers. On top of that, on the same day, opposition figure Aleksei Navalny was found guilty of slander over a Twitter post.

Pavel Durov said in a statement on Monday that not only had he been fired from VKontakte, but he had learned about it from the press. He added that Kremlin loyalists Igor Sechin and Alisher Usmanov now had “complete control” over the social network, and that “Probably, in the Russian context, something like this was inevitable”. He revealed in an interview with TechCrunch that he’s left Russia, and has no plans to come back — labelling the country  “incompatible with internet business at the moment”. VK, as it is known, is not the go-to platform for political expression, its users are generally quite young. However, the site has recently found itself in the spotlight of President Vladimir Putin’s regime, both over groups and accounts connected to the ongoing conflict in Ukraine, and, Durov claims, over Navalny‘s page.

Meanwhile, claimed to be a counter-terrorism measure, the new law forces any site with more than 3,000 daily visitors to register with authorities. It will then be considered a mass media outlet, with the potential of being subjected to blocking and fines for anything from failing to verify information posted, to using curse words. Bloggers could also be held responsible for comments posted by third parties on their site, while anonymous blogging may or may not be banned. If enforced, it would “curb freedom of expression and freedom of social media, as well as seriously inhibit the right of citizens to freely receive and disseminate alternative information and express critical views,” said the OSCE Representative on Freedom of the Media, Dunja Mijatovic.

While the amendment has yet to be signed into law, it appears to have already made an impact. Russia’s biggest search engine Yandex has removed its ranking of the country’s most popular bloggers, saying it is because the blogsphere has peaked and is losing ground to social media as a discussion platform. Incidentally, their decision was announced only days before the Duma representatives made theirs.

But these cases are merely the latest chapters in the ongoing saga of Russian internet censorship. While to some extent, the authorities have kept an eye on the internet since its inception, there was a time not long ago when their attention was firmly fixed on controlling the traditional media. But as TV news turned into little more than government propaganda machines (see the bizarre spectacle that is RT) Russians started looking for alternative platforms for real debate. Unsurprisingly, they found them on the internet, and it proved a relatively free space. The remarkable popularity of blogging site LiveJournal in Russia is one result of this; the rise of independent online news providers like Lenta.ru another.

But even then, there were those who realised the regime would turn its attention to the internet as soon as it clocked onto its potential power. And sure enough — the wave of internet repression we’re seeing today is widely believed to have started with the protests surrounding the elections securing Putin’s third term in power. Like the Arab spring, here too the internet was an effective organising tool.

Since then, continuous blocking and takedowns have been supplemented by more large-scale crackdowns, like the 2012 blacklisting of websites, and the range of attacks on online news sites, such as Lenta.ru,  TVRain and Ekho Moskvy, early this year. And while there are immediate and obvious effects of putting government loyalists in powerful media positions or simply shutting down outlets that show any sign of dissent from the official line, these actions also pose less overt threats to free expression.

“We should understand one thing — while technically these initiatives look not very sophisticated, in fact the entire strategy is very efficient because it provokes the rise of self-censorship among users, ISPs and even global platforms,” renowned Russian investigative journalist Andrei Soldatov explained to Index. “Many are becoming more and more cautious facing government pressure on the internet, not very predictable, and thus extremely dangerous.”

There is little reason to believe that authorities will call it a day with their latest moves. “Every time we wonder, is it possible to have more propaganda and more pressure, but then it turns out it is possible,” Tonia Samsonova, a correspondent for Ekho Moskvy and TVRain told Index. She says people used to believe they lived in a free society, or one that was on its way to becoming free, but then the situation deteriorated. And every time they think they’ve hit rock bottom, “someone is knocking from the underground and we realise we can go lower and lower and lower in terms of freedom,” she says. “And I think there is a lot of room for making things worse for internet freedom in Russia.”

Soldatov believes a possible next step involves forcing the likes of Google and Twitter on to Russian soil: “It’s very probable, given that some prominent Russian MPs already started putting global platforms under pressure (using as pretext the protection of personal data of Russian citizens against NSA espionage). The very last initiative was to forbid Facebook in Russia until the company relocates its servers with Russian citizens data on Russian soil, notably in Siberia, because it might help develop this region.” This initiative has not yet been made into a draft bill, but Soldatov says “the trend is quite obvious”.

Indeed, on a related note, recently passed legislation orders websites — including foreign ones with Russian users — to keep six-month records of user activity, and for that to be made available to the authorities. Whether big internationals like Facebook will comply when challenged remains to be seen.

“Their ultimate goal is to have no oppositional thinkers posting,” says Samsonova. With few signs of widespread public opposition to the authorities’ previous repressive moves, further erosion of internet freedom on the path towards this goal seems likely.

This article was posted on 25 April 2014 at indexoncensorship.org

Russia: Putin opponent Aleksei Navalny banned from the internet


Alexei Navalny addresses a rally (Image: Roma Yandolin/Demotix)

Russian anti-corruption activist and regime critic Aleksei Navalny has been placed under house arrest for two months, against the backdrop of an ongoing investigation against him and his brother for money laundering and embezzlement. He has also been banned from using the internet and talking to the media.

A Moscow court made the ruling following a request from the Russian Investigative Committee, on the basis that Navalny had violated a travel ban by leaving Moscow. Earlier this week, he was sentenced to 7 days in jail for “disobeying police during an unsanctioned public” after taking part in a rally on 24 January day before. He is also currently serving a five-year suspended sentence for theft of 16 million roubles, charges he has insisted are politically motivated.

“I believe the new measures are based on trumped up grounds in order to restrict my political activities,” Navalny said during his hearing.

This article was posted on February 28, 2014 at indexoncensorship.org