Thursday 16 April 2015

Memes: The Final Frontier of Russian Censorship

The censorship spotlight turned to Russia last week with the announcement that the use of parody accounts, parody websites, and celebrity photos in memes that have “nothing to do with the celebrity’s personality” are illegal.

Think about it: some of the greatest memes on the internet juxtapose an image of a famous person with a concept that has absolutely no connection whatsoever to that person. 

One can only wonder what caused Russia to take yet another step towards creating a truly repressive state devoid of laughter.

No new law has been passed; rather, media watchdog and censor Roskomnadzor chose to clarify existing law and extend a judge’s recent decision that an obscene meme of singer Valeri Syutkin is in violation of his rights. According to the policy, Roskomnadzor can ask a responsible party to remove a parody account, website, or meme; if the request is ignored, the case will be tried in court. Lurkmore, the Russian site that hosts the controversial Valeri Syutkin meme, currently faces the choice of blocking the meme from Russian-based internet users or having its entire website blocked in Russia.

The policy update is in keeping with the current trajectory of Roskomnadzor, whose recent acts of censorship have included requiring registration and stricter regulations for bloggers with over 3000 daily readers and banning the use of particular swear words in media, in addition to establishing an overall climate of a government willing and able to shut down websites as wanted.

It’s hard not to argue that Russia’s newfound anti-meme stance has gone a step too far. Doesn’t the average person want and deserve to live in a world with Putin on the Ritz?

A small comfort can be found in Roskomnadzor’s response to an outpouring of criticism on VKontakte, a Facebook-esque site in which the policy clarification was first announced. In a post on April 9, the media watchdog clearly stated that the policy is only intended for parodies and memes that are “insulting” and/or in a “negative context”.

Phew. Not every meme has to go. Only the mean ones.

Although the policy update is perhaps not as far reaching as many currently envision it to be, it remains a severe violation of freedom of expression. The message is clear: internet users in Russia are being patrolled and should think carefully about what they choose to post. Regardless of government follow up, the fear instilled by such an environment will cause internet users to self-censor, which is exactly what Roskomnadzor intended with such a policy. And, should the Russian government want to persecute all parody and meme-makers, it has a perfectly vague policy in place to enable it to do so.

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