MOSCOW â€" He is described as the Russian equivalent of Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg. After launching VKontakte, Russiaâ€™s biggest social network, a decade ago, Pavel Durov has more recently become one of President Vladimir Putin's fiercest, if ever discreet, opponents.
Forced into exile after quarrels with the Kremlin, he is never where you'd expect him to be.
Many had expected to see him at the opening of Moscow's Internet Economy Forum in December 2015. But Durov, who also founded controversial messaging application Telegram, didn't show up. "No surprise. He's out of the system,â€ was the message from several attendees, each younger and more laid-back than the next. They say that Durov no longer wants his own image associated with Russia, preferring instead to emphasize that his vision and projects are global in nature.
Since Durovâ€™s power struggle with Russian authorities in 2014 over VKontakte, which was eventually acquired by businessmen with links to the Kremlin for what is estimated to be between $50 and $100 million, the now 31-year-old is officially in exile. And yet, he returns to Saint Petersburg regularly to visit family. Few have managed to see Durov in his hometown where, in 2006, he created the social network after studying at university. You're better off looking for him in Barcelona or San Francisco.
The best way to contact "Pashaâ€, as Durov is called, is through the Internet using one of the many social network platforms, messaging services and email addresses he uses. We tried with two months of repeated attempts, but failed.
"Pasha only replies when it suits him, and when he has time. He's a pioneer in his field, he's aware of his influence â€" the influence of a successful entrepreneur who became a media mogul in his own right," said Pavel Kushelev, a Russian webspace expert, showing the last message he got from Durov on his phone. It was just after the Nov. 13, 2015, attacks in Paris when Telegram, the messaging app Durov launched with brother Nikolai, was accused of being used by militants to help organize the terror attack.
Telegram was conceived of to protect users from government control thanks to a stronger encryption system than rival messaging application Whatsapp. That's why it became a formidable tool for terrorists.
Durov responded to criticism by blocking 78 accounts linked to the Islamic State (ISIS), the jihadist group that claimed responsibility for the attacks. Before the Paris attacks, critics in Russia had called for Telegram and other messaging services to be banned. "You might as well ban words," Durov retorted.
But critics persisted. Some say that people at Telegram were aware long before the Paris attacks that jihadists were using the service. "From the moment it was born, some 90,000 people a day downloaded the app in the Middle East," said Internet expert Igor Achmanov.
"It's huge. This can't have gone unnoticed. The fact that there were people from (ISIS) among the users came out very quickly," he said. "But it wasn't until after the Paris attacks that Pavel Durov decided to block accounts."
A well-known figure in Russia, Achmanov has worked personally with Durov, when the VKontakte founder needed connections to develop his service. "A young man with a strange behavior," Achmanov said of Durov. "The king of weird stuff. He actually fell out with a lot of people."
Achmanov remembers one time when Durov threw 5,000-ruble bills (about $140 at the time) folded like paper planes from his office window in Saint Petersburg, and laughed as he watched passersby. "He's a savage," Achmanov said. "He has this young nouveau-riche's mentality, of people who don't think about what they do, but then get scared by the consequences of their actions."
This is probably what happened after the Paris attacks when Durov spoke about French authorities. "The French government is as responsible as the Islamic State for this because it is their policies and carelessness that eventually led to the tragedy," he wrote on Instagram. "They take money away from hardworking people of France with outrageously high taxes and spend them on waging useless wars in the Middle East and on creating a parasitic social paradise for North African immigrants."
Durov, who now spends most of his time in the comfort of Western countries, worried about the criticism of his comments at a time when he's trying to grow Telegramâ€™s business. Since his remarks on the French government, Durov has kept quiet.
â€œHeâ€™s first and foremost an introvert," said Matvei Alekseev, a former VKontakte employee. Durov is single and often dresses in black. "It's difficult to work with him. He doesn't speak much.â€
Alekseev doesn't hide his admiration for Durov, who is considered an "Internet Robin Hood" for placing civil liberties above all else in an authoritarian country. Durov ultimately decided to leave Russia in order to defend his freedom as an entrepreneur. "Unfortunately, the country is incompatible with internet business at the moment," he said at the time, after being forced to give away financial control of VKontakte to pro-Kremlin businessmen.
"I publicly refused to cooperate with the authorities. They canâ€™t stand me," Durov said just before leaving.
Russia believed the social network had played a crucial role in the pro-European protests in Ukraine, and Russian intelligence FSB wanted to collect data on the movement's leaders after they had used the service to rally demonstrators.
With few words, a sensational resignation and a sudden exile, Durov became, in spite of himself, the symbol of Kremlin's takeover of Russian internet. Cases of censorship have multiplied between 2014 and 2015, according to a report by Agora human rights associations, a network of lawyers. In December, a blogger form Siberia was sentenced to five years in a labor camp, and a three-year ban from the Internet, for publishing pro-Ukrainian videos.
Before Durov's exile, the Russian parliament passed a new law enforcing strict rules for blogs. Under the new legislation, any site that gets more than 3,000 views a day must register with a media watchdog and to commit to verifying the information it publishes.
These court proceedings and regulations are the exact opposite of the freedom of speech defended by Durov, who had refused to hand over the personal data of Russian opponents to the FSB and declined to block the web page of Alexei Navalny, one of the leaders of the anti-Kremlin opposition.
With VKontakte, Durov wanted to give everyone, especially the underprivileged, free access to what only the elite had enjoyed. With Telegram, he intends to defend the individualâ€™s right to privacy. Durov isn't just a rebel. He's a die-hard libertarian.
Once meant to protect the royal family, the century-old law has become a tool for the military-led government in Bangkok to stamp out all dissent. A new report outlines the abuses.
"We need to reform the institution of the monarchy in Thailand. It is the root of the problem." Those words, from Thai student activist Juthatip Sirikan, are a clear expression of the growing youth-led movement that is challenging the legitimacy of the government and demanding deep political changes in the Southeast Asian nation. Yet those very same words could also send Sirikan to jail.
Thailand's Criminal Code 'Lèse-Majesté' Article 112 imposes jail terms for defaming, insulting, or threatening the monarchy, with sentences of three to 15 years. This law has been present in Thai politics since 1908, though applied sparingly, only when direct verbal or written attacks against members of the royal family.
But after the May 2014 military coup d'état, Thailand experienced the first wave of lèse-majesté arrests, prosecutions, and detentions of at least 127 individuals arrested in a much wider interpretation of the law.
The recent report 'Second Wave: The Return of Lèse-Majesté in Thailand', documents how the Thai government has "used and abused Article 112 of the Criminal Code to target pro-democracy activists and protesters in relation to their online political expression and participation in peaceful pro-democracy demonstrations."
Criticism of any 'royal project'
The investigation shows 124 individuals, including at least eight minors, have been charged with lèse-majesté between November 2020 and August 2021. Nineteen of them served jail time. The new wave of charges is cited as a response to the rising pro-democracy protests across Thailand over the past year.
Juthatip Sirikan explains that the law is now being applied in such a broad way that people are not allowed to question government budgets and expenditure if they have any relationship with the royal family, which stifles criticism of the most basic government decision-making since there are an estimated 5,000 ongoing "royal" projects. "Article 112 of lèse-majesté could be the key (factor) in Thailand's political problems" the young activist argues.
In 2020 the Move Forward opposition party questioned royal spending paid by government departments, including nearly 3 billion baht (89,874,174 USD) from the Defense Ministry and Thai police for royal security, and 7 billion baht budgeted for royal development projects, as well as 38 planes and helicopters for the monarchy. Previously, on June 16, 2018, it was revealed that Thailand's Crown Property Bureau transferred its entire portfolio to the new King Maha Vajiralongkorn.
Protestors In Bangkok Call For Political Prisoner Release
Freedom of speech at stake
"Article 112 shuts down all freedom of speech in this country", says Sirikan. "Even the political parties fear to touch the subject, so it blocks most things. This country cannot move anywhere if we still have this law."
The student activist herself was charged with lèse-majesté in September 2020, after simply citing a list of public documents that refer to royal family expenditure. Sirikan comes from a family that has faced the consequences of decades of political repression. Her grandfather, Tiang Sirikhan was a journalist and politician who openly protested against Thailand's involvement in World War II. He was accused of being a Communist and abducted in 1952. According to Sirikhan's family, he was killed by the state.
The new report was conducted by The International Federation for Human Rights (FIDH), Thai Lawyer for Human Rights (TLHR), and Internet Law Reform Dialogue (iLaw). It accuses Thai authorities of an increasingly broad interpretation of Article 112, to the point of "absurdity," including charges against people for criticizing the government's COVID-19 vaccine management, wearing crop tops, insulting the previous monarch, or quoting a United Nations statement about Article 112.
Juthatip Sirikan speaks in front of democracy monument.
Shift to social media
While in the past the Article was only used against people who spoke about the royals, it's now being used as an alibi for more general political repression — which has also spurred more open campaigning to abolish it. Sirikan recounts recent cases of police charging people for spreading paint near the picture of the king during a protest, or even just for having a picture of the king as phone wallpaper.
The more than a century-old law is now largely playing out online, where much of today's protest takes place in Thailand. Sirikan says people are willing to go further on social media to expose information such as how the king intervenes in politics and the monarchy's accumulation of wealth, information the mainstream media rarely reports on them.
Not surprisingly, however, social media is heavily monitored and the military is involved in Intelligence operations and cyber attacks against human rights defenders and critics of any kind. In October 2020, Twitter took down 926 accounts, linked to the army and the government, which promoted themselves and attacked political opposition, and this June, Google removed two Maps with pictures, names, and addresses, of more than 400 people who were accused of insulting the Thai monarchy. "They are trying to control the internet as well," Sirikan says. "They are trying to censor every content that they find a threat".
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