Central and East European online environmentalism targeted
By Pavel P Antonov for APCNews
BUDAPEST, HUNGARY, 13 September 2007
Fidanka and Eoin McGrath, a family soon expecting their first child, spent two of the hottest August days in a quite unusual way – having a friendly talk with police officials. Unlike the character of Bruce Willis who co-operated with hackers to save the nation in the summer Holywood blockbuster Die Hard 4, on a number of occasions authorities in Central and Eastern Europe (CEE) have targeted environmental activists for things they did – or did not do – over the
internet. The McGraths were the last to experience that.
The young couple could make a micro case study of successful coexistence between
European integration and environmental sustainability. She – a Bulgarian environmental activist – and he – an Irish computer programmer – moved to
countryside to live on their own organic farm.
The family life was disturbed abruptly this summer, when the two were called in by
the local unit of the GDBOP – an abbreviation in Bulgarian for the Chief Directorate for Combat against Organised Crime. GDBOP is one of
special service agencies, which inherited the notorious communist State Security after 1990.
was the first to take up the invitation and appear at the police station –
without a lawyer or translator – just to learn that he had been identified as
the author of a bomb-threat. The threat, sent in February from a Russian server
and signed by a non-existing environmental group, was popularised by mass media.
It warned that in retaliation for the environmental damages in Bansko, planned
explosions were ready to detonate and ignite a catastrophic avalanche over the
the police did not find any explosives but the operations in the resort were
disrupted for a few hours, media reported. Active environmental organisations
from the Save Pirin coalition, which had campaigned against the resort’s
development, condemned the threat as a provocation. The interrogating officers
urged McGrath to “admit”, because that would “make things easier”, the online
daily MediaPool reported.
Eoin, nor Fidanka McGrath admitted any involvement with the email threat during
the two days. “The police were friendly, but we don’t know whether this was an
interrogation technique or a speculation,” Fidanka told MediaPool.
investigating police officer refused the media any comments. The incident
sprang outrage among environmental campaigners, as it was the second in less
then a month when authorities were putting pressure on activists for allegedly
illegal online activities. “Internet communications were involved again by the
repressive organs [of the state] in order to prove how easy it is to organise a
terrorist act in
wrote Petko Kovachev – a colleague of Fidanka McGrath at CEE Bankwatch, and
founder of the Green Policy Institute in
McGrath story looks like part of a true investigation, on a true illegal
matter. This could not have been said on a previous occasion, just a month earlier.
Criminalisation of green bloggers in
Bouzgounov was called in by GDBOP and advised in a similarly “friendly” way to
refrain from covering environmental protests in his blog. Street protests
against the brutal over-construction of the Black Sea coast, had reached their
peak in July, after the
country’s largest natural park Strandja.
court’s ruling greenlighted yet another major coastal hotel project. After the
“friendly” chat, the blogger had to sign an official warning that he would
“refrain from quoting other sources of information in his personal blog – when
possible violation of law is involved, namely, organising of unpermitted civil
of the protocol was handed to him. Bouzgounov described the event in his blog:
“Yes, I wrote about Strandja. Because I care whether tomorrow this park will be
there or not! No, I did not call for riots, illegal action, violence or
he vowed not to remain silent that a special service, supposedly dealing with
organised crime, has found the time, agents, and the money to “investigate
bloggers, free people, writing about
future and past protests in its defense”.
intervention of the police against bloggers, expressing opinion or posting
information about the environment is completely unacceptable, said Dan
McQuillan – the coordinator of Amnesty International’s Irrepressible.info
internet rights campaign.
cannot clamp down on things written by bloggers, simply because they are
inconvenient,” he affirmed. Lawyers from the Access to Information Programme in
his opinion. Publishing of information in the internet, including blogging, is
a form in which the right to freedom of expression is exercised, guaranteed by
the European Human Rights Convention and by the Bulgarian Constitution, the
exercise pressure against online environmentalism.
environmentalists watched online, visited offline
On March 12, 2004 the Romanian
campaigner Eugen David was called for interrogation by
General Police Inspectorate (GPI) for almost two hours. David is the president
Maior – a non-profit
group carrying out a campaign against a gold extraction project in the Rosia
The activist claimed that the project
would involve the involuntary resettlement of over 2000 people and destroy
unique archaeological and natural sites. The police action was caused by the
posting online of a report, describing the impacts of the project over
archeological sites in the nearby Cirnic mountain. A complaint filed by the
report’s author for infringing author’s rights was the reason that got the GPI
to start preliminary investigation leading to a penal procedure.
According to an Alburnus Maior press
release the inception of the questioning did not clarify David’s statute or
role within the procedure. Throughout the meeting Eugen David was not given
access to the complaint; but instead was read random excerpts by the GPI
The report “Ancient
Gold Mines of Dacia –Rosia Montana District” written by Beatrice Cauuet, a scholar
at the University of Toulouse in France, was the first proof of
valuable archeological findings in the potential gold mining site, explained
Stefanie Roth – a campaigner at Alburnus Maior.
Roth, who received the Goldman
Environmental prize for her campaigning work in Rosia
action of the police. “They were looking for one guilty person;
playing the good cop and bad cop; trying to single out who posted the report on
line”, Roth told. But the activists maintained their version – that the
campaign had more than a thousand volunteers from all over the world and anyone
of them could have posted it. A final ruling by the court that the publishing
of the report served public interest, brought a happy end to the case, Roth
Fake campaigners and e-moles in
a NATO radar installation on the
softer but more deceitful touch at the hand of authorities back in 2004.
Fake news items were filed in the
Hungarian Indymedia – the independent online outlet of citizen journalists.
A contributor to the portal
presenting himself as a local citizen from Zengo kept submitting articles in
favour of the controversial radar construction project, said Fidusz, the
Indymedia editor at the time.
After checking the internet
protocol address of the sender, Fiduz realised the articles were sent from the
servers of the Security Investment Department of the Ministry of Defence – the
proponent of the NATO radar locator project. The case was publicised and did
not affect the campaign, which finally lead to the relocation of the radar from
Zengo, Fidusz recalled.
While a mole has been a most popular nickname
for undercover police informers in latest history, cyberage has created its own
prototype. Internet moles, or paid contributors to civil society online
discussion forums have become very common, said Laszlo Perneczky – Pepe, a
long-serving environmental activist from
are anonymous contributors propagating certain political or business interests.
They participate in almost every public online forum, just using their
nicknames; we sometimes even know who they are in real life and who pays their
salaries, but there is nothing we can do – it is all legal, and this is the
nature of the internet, Pepe commented.
aggressive expansion of copyright and intellectual property rights pose another
major threat on internet freedoms, especially in the field of environment,
already responded aggressively to the use of their logos in online campaigns, although happily, robust defences by
organisations such as Greenpeace have been resisting.
can be subject to take-downs through legislation such as the Digital Millenium Copyright Act – a form of legalised harassment and
disruption of campaign websites, he warned.
“I am not surprised to see examples of
pressure against bloggers in Central and
added McQuillan, explaining that the freedom of the internet, just like the
freedom of the press and all other freedoms we – probably wrongly – take for
granted. It will go through a long struggled before it gets established. “If we
do not constantly defend it, we shall have less and less freedom of internet
expression,” McQuillan warned.
International media and
The threats on
online activism did not remain unnoticed by the international Internet rights
community. Already in 2004, the Romanian e-network Strawberry Net, which hosted
<www.rosiamontana.org>, alerted the Association for Progressive
Communications (APC) – the global civil society network supporting the use of
information technologies for social change.
APC has maintained
a fast response network for moving content under threat across national borders. In
launched a campaign in support of the freedom of internet expression at
<freenet.bluelink.net>. As a network of environmental NGOs, BlueLink has
been hosting and providing online support to some of the major environmental
campaigns since 1998, including Save Pirin. Both Bozgounov and McGrath happen
to be the present and the former web managers of BlueLink.
“The FreeNet campaign demonstrates the
intersection between the online freedom of speech/internet rights dimension,
and the protection of the environment and citizen’s rights to public
participation,” commented APC’s Executive Director, Anriette Esterhuysen.
Since 2005, APC has launched an initiative to analyse and
well as other instruments that bridge the policy gap between Information
Society and Environmental Sustainability, said Esterhuysen.
McQuillan has also identified a deeper
imperative arising from the nature of the information society, which is the
fact that the
internet itself is becoming an actor in many thematic fields of
activism, including the environment. An example for that is the Aarhus
Convention and the Pollutant Relase and Transfer Registers, which require the
posting of environmental information online.