During a Disaster, Information Needs to Be Free


Over in Slate, Masha Gessen has written a vivid account of life in heat-soaked Russia. What begins with local color about Muscovites coping with catastrophic conditions soon turns into a lesson in the importance of allowing information to flow freely, and in how poorly equipped an authoritarian society can be when it's time to deal with a disaster. The heat wave, Gessen writes, 

Russia's burning, dial 99999.

has exposed a key failing of Russian society: The flow of information has stopped. There is not a single newspaper that even strives to be national in its coverage. The television is not only controlled by the Kremlin; it is made by the Kremlin for the Kremlin, and it is entirely unsuited to gathering or conveying actual information. Even the Russian blogosphere is bizarrely fragmented: Researchers who "mapped" it discovered that, unlike any other blogosphere in the world, it consists of many non-overlapping circles. People in different walks of life, different professions, and different parts of the country simply do not talk to one another. The same is true of political institutions: Since the Russian government effectively abolished representative democracy, canceling direct elections, there is no reason–and no real mechanism–for Moscow politicians to know what is going on in the vast country. Nor do governors need concern themselves with the lives and the disasters in their regions–they, too, are no longer elected but are appointed by the Kremlin.

As a result, no one knows where the fires are burning–unless they are burning right next to you. There is no map that would tell you whether your loved ones are safe or whether there is a fire along your planned travel route. Often, there is also no way to call for help. In a telling exchange, a blogger wrote to Prime Minister Vladimir Putin complaining that his village, close to the epicenter of one of the fires, no longer had even the ship's bell residents had once used to call for help. In a bizarre move, Putin responded by ordering that the ship's bell be restored to the village.

Elsewhere in Reason: Jeannette Sutton explains the importance of access to information during a disaster.

Elsewhere not in Reason: Some amazing photos from the burnt Russian landscape.

NEXT: Reason Morning Links: Primary Night, Fed Gives Bad Sign on the Economy, Al-Qaeda Recruiting in Iraq

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  1. “In Soviet Russia, fire starts YOU!”

    Too soon?

    1. No, just too banal.

      1. Too Slashdot.

  2. “In a bizarre move, Putin responded by ordering that the ship’s bell be restored to the village.”

    Shit. In America they’d pass the village bell and child safety act of 2010. #6 Billion dollars in earmarks and one lousy chinese made bell.

  3. Note as our government has become more and more savagely authoritarian, especially in the administrative law realm, its ability to deal with disasters has gotten worse.

    1. Yeah, hard to match the wonderful response to the San Fran Quake of 1906 back in those halycon laissez-faire days John!

      1. I blame Bush.

      2. The government responded to the 1906 quake and fires by effectively declaring martial law in the city and actively preventing citizens from fighting fires themselves. Not exactly laissez faire.

        1. Shhh! You’ll ruin MNG’s imaginary vision of capitalist dystopia.

        2. But Jesse didn’t you know our government has gotten “more and more savagely authoritarian” so those must have been glorious laissez-faire days ;)!

          I mean, the Democrats were out of power then!

          1. We now throw people in prison for years for not filling out their forms correctly when they import Orchids. I would call that savagely authoritarian.

            1. I’ll show you savagely authoritarian. Do you happen to have a dog?

              1. Personally I think shooting Corgis, while reprehensible, are among the least offensive things the costumed thugs do when they break into your home. The rate at which they shoot people is more of a cause for alarm in my book.

          2. you are the mirror image douchebag.

        3. In spite of government interference and martial law the largest bank in the world grew out of a man refusing to close his bank (that was destroyed by the quake) like his colleagues did and setting up shop on a produce cart. Loaning money on a signature to help repair damage done by the quake. Also giving rise to the California wine industry, major portions of the motion picture industry, projects like the Golden Gate bridge.

          That dirty free market banking bastard.

      3. You are so ignorant. It is amazing. The response to the San Fransisco earth quake was great. The problem was the way the buildings were built and the limitations of fire fighting technology.

        But the actual response was quite good.

        “The city’s interim fire chief (the original one was killed when the earthquake first struck) sent an urgent request to the Presidio, an Army post on the edge of the stricken city, for dynamite. Funston had already decided the situation required the use of troops. Collaring a policeman, he sent word to Mayor Schmitz of his decision to assist, and then ordered Army troops from as far away as Angel Island to mobilize and come into the City. Explosives were ferried across the Bay from the California Powder Works in what is now Hercules.

        During the first few days, soldiers provided valuable services patrolling streets to discourage looting and guarding buildings such as the U.S. Mint, post office, and county jail. They aided the fire department in dynamiting to demolish buildings in the path of the fires. The Army also became responsible for feeding, sheltering, and clothing the tens of thousands of displaced residents of the city. Under the command of Funston’s superior, Major General Adolphus Greely, Commanding Officer, Pacific Division, over 4,000 troops saw service during the emergency. On July 1, 1906, civil authorities assumed responsibility for relief efforts, and the Army withdrew from the city.”

        There were some instances of the Army shooting looters but that is about it. Given the magnitude of the disaster and the state of technology then, the response was quite good.

        Honestly MNG, do you ever read at all? Is there any event in history you don’t have some misconception about?

        1. “The government responded to the 1906 quake and fires by effectively declaring martial law in the city and actively preventing citizens from fighting fires themselves.”

          ” The response to the San Fransisco earth quake was great.”


          1. The entire city burned down and there was no longer an effective police force or city government. There are times when you actually need martial law.

            Just admit it MNG. You talked out of your ass and Jesse and I called you on it. It is not like anyone on here thinks you knew anything about history anyway.

            1. Dude, do you realize you got called by Jesse and you posted AFTER him?


                1. Sigh, poor Warty, did you not get it the first time? The post was joshing about the “our government has become more and more savagely authoritarian” meme. It’s bullshit hyperbole.

                  I mean, call me crazy but I think the whole shooting looters days were a bit more authoritarian…

                  1. I get your stupid point, moron. It’s just convenient for you that John said something stupid, so that you can…Look over there! Look!

                    1. “It’s just convenient for you that John said something stupid”

                      Dude, I count on that repeatedly every day 🙂

                      Seriously though, do you think I support restrictions on information? WTF?

                    2. Liberals have this beloved organization called the “ACLU” which has a pretty good history of going around fighting government restrictions on information. I’m that kind of liberal…

                    3. I don’t give a shit what kind of restrictions you support, and I have no idea how it is that you think that I’m arguing with you about that. I’m just laughing at your head-fake after you got called for your stupidity.

                    4. Oh, then you didn’t understand my post!

                      Third time: it was making fun of the idea that our government has gotten “more and more authoritarian.” See, the response to the 06 quake was pretty authoritarian, as Jesse pointed out.

                    5. You don’t really know anything about libertarians, do you?

                  2. I was almost shot after hurricane Andrew. But not by looters. It was by the fucking cops.

                    And I was in my front yard because it was too hot inside (not to mention the fact that mold, by then, was becoming a huge problem indoors).

                    Fuck Marshall law. The 2a is all the Marshall law I need.


                  4. While you’re probably right on this question, one could argue that emergency authoritarianism is more effective when it stands in contrast to a lack of authoritarianism in day-to-day affairs. [Citation needed], obviously, but there is a distinction between the nanny-police-security state and martial law during a natural disaster.

                2. John: Don’t understate the problems with the response to the 1906 quake. The government made the disastrous decision of using gunpowder rather than dynamite when making firebreaks, which, naturally, spread fires rather than containing them. Citizens who tried to fight fires through more effective methods were often forcibly evacuated. And some of the troops were trigger-happy, shooting looters who turned out not to be looters at all.

                  1. “The response to the San Fransisco earth quake was great.”

                    Oh, get ready for some serious pedaling folks!

                  2. It was far from perfect. But no response is perfect. Further, consider the limitations they were under. The Army were pretty lousy fire fighters. But all and all, they did a decent job. And I think better than what we did in Katrina.

                    1. “” The response to the San Fransisco earth quake was great.”

                      “It was far from perfect.”

                      Pedal, pedal!

              1. He posted while I was typing my post. Read the timestamps dumb ass.

                1. John: “While he was thinking I was typing!”

                  Well yeah, we’re used to you typing without thinking 🙂

                  1. John: “While he was thinking I was typing!”

                    Well yeah, we’re used to you typing without thinking 🙂

                    See, at least MNG is admitting he argues against the words he puts in his opponent’s mouth. He’s no longer pretending on that score, so that’s a good thing, right?

              2. How the public responded to the earthquake was great, like many disasters more than a few people stepped up to the plate and delivered under incredibly difficult circumstances. These peopled did so in spite of the what could have been considered a poor response by government.

                Whether John meant that or not I don’t know. But you could easily argue either side depending on what you consider “the response.”

                1. Considering what John cut and pasted was about government officials and troops response that’s going to take some serious peddling.

                  You two get a room or something! The gay marriage thread is a few down…

                  1. I am not peddling anywhere dumb ass. I only cut and paste wikipedia because it was the easiest source. You have yet to produce on piece of evidence that the response wasn’t good. The whole discussion is between Jesse and I. You have added nothing to the debate, which is of course your style.

                    1. “The whole discussion is between Jesse and I.”

                      What about this debate you are having with yourself?

                      ” The response to the San Fransisco earth quake was great.”

                      “It was far from perfect.”

                    2. Such pedaling by John should encourage all cycling enthusiasts who were worried that with Lance Armstrong on the way down America has lost a star…

                      Notice the difference between fluffy’s graceful apology earlier today and John’s steadfast sticking to his stupidity? That’s called nuance vs. dogmatism folks!

                  2. I’m not the one with a priapism like hard-on for John and everything he posts.

                    I mentioned the context, you ignored it. I’m not surprised. I just see the whole situation as having examples of both good and bad government action and good and bad free market actions.

          2. “The government responded to the 1906 quake and fires by effectively declaring martial law in the city and actively preventing citizens from fighting fires themselves.”

            ” The response to the San Fransisco earth quake was great.”


            John and libertarians having different takes on the same event amazes you, MNG?

        2. But…But…the Federal Army!!! I bet taxpayers everywhere were up in arms that they were robbed at gunpoint…ugh…people!!

          They should have set up a private corporation to sell emergency supplies at $5 bucks a cup of water and made a huge profit. That’s the free market way! Stealing money from people and giving it to the army is pure Marxism.

          1. I’ll give this a 7. Enough over the top so you can tell it’s trolling, but not that original.

            1. Trolling or not, he has a point. Do you?

    2. Yeah, but there are still enough private citizens telling you to get the fuck out!

      1. Link fixed.

        (it’s a ridiculous GI Joe PSA)

        1. Pork chop sandwiches!!!!!!!

          I like that I don’t even need to watch it to know what you linked to.

  4. Worst death: Fire in Russia or mudslide in China?

    1. Why travel? In California you can have both!

        1. I don’t get this meme. Why do you say +1 when there is no voting system in place?

          Or is it like, totes ironic?

          1. “You were not put upon this Earth to ‘Get it’!”

          2. I don’t get this meme. Why do you say +1 when there is no voting system in place?

            It’s shorter than “I like what you say, and would like to subscribe to your newsletter.”


            1. I read somewhere that +1 means you’ve dipped in the pool and are getting cocktail wet…

  5. Where is Tommy Lee Jones to help? Oh, these are only forest fires. My bad.

    1. We need a Volcano to destroy LA. Because at the end, when all the ash falls, race will cease to matter. That was the point of Volcano, right?

      1. I thought the point was that Jersey barriers can stop anything.

      2. A volcano and a fugitive

        1. A volcano and a fugitive

          walk into a bar….

  6. And Obama wants to shut the internet OFF during emergencies…
    Anybody got a link to where we can buy a big bell?

  7. The effects of seventy years of commie rule is going to take a long time to reverse. Hell, two years of it has taken its toll here.

  8. I can testify that the coverage of Russian fires and Moscow smog on Russian news websites is much less comprehensive than what you can find in Le Figaro or Le Monde. It is bizarre.

    1. First rule for disasters if you’re a government official: Tell them everything is under control, ESPECIALLY when it isn’t.

    2. The Russians have an effectively state run media. State run medias don’t like to report on embarrassing facts. It is the same reason the British papers coverage Queen Michelle’s trip to Spain was so much more comprehensive than American coverage.

      1. Cuz our media is state run! Get it ;), eh, get it ;)?

        1. That’s not funny, our media IS state run, MNG. You’d have to be sick and deluded to refudiate this truth.

          1. Yeah, I mean, we are on some state run media right now I guess!

        2. Our media acts just like the Russian media. We know now thanks to the journolist e-mails that it coordinates the story and talking point ahead of time to support the government position. The state doesn’t own it, true. But that just means that it goes back to functioning as a real media when the wrong party is in power. But at least until November, it is effectively state run.

        3. I would say that we don’t have a “state-run” media. The major media outlets (with a handful of notable exceptions) are, however, a one-party media.

          On the Today show this morning (don’t laugh, I’m married. OK, laugh.), Anne Curry interviewed the Senate primary winners in CT and CO. The Republican primary winner was basically asked “why should we take you seriously”. The Democratic primary winner was basically asked “would you like some of our air time to expand upon your talking points”. I thought it was rather striking.

          1. Was it because, I dunno, the CT GOP winner runs a professional wrestling organization? No, it must have been blind partisanship…

            1. And I happen to like Linda McMahon (long time WWE fan). But she has been involved in some crazy skits over the years so yeah, she is going to get that question a bit…

              1. Jesus, MNG. You’re like a fucking tapeworm.

                1. You can treat tapeworms.

            2. I know. Just imagine if a Democratic Senate candidate was a professional comedian. I am sure they would be all over him. They would never take him seriously, right?

              1. He got that question quite a bit. I heard NPR and ABC ask it of him straight up.

                1. Several times Stuart Saves His Family was brought up. No way to spin that as favorable treatment!


                  2. Stuart Saves His Family was actually a fun movie. Made me not hate Al Franken quite so much.

                    1. I too enjoyoed SSHF.

                      I thought it was his best work.

          2. The Republican primary winner was basically asked “why should we take you seriously”.

            Well, it IS CT. It would be big news if that seat was won by an R.

            But, yes, quite the bias.

          3. “The Republican winner”? You don’t think the particular identity of that Republican winner has anything to do with that differential treatment, do you?

            I too believe there’s a strong liberal bias in the current MSM, but attempting to show it with this example is laughable.

  9. “We know now thanks to the journolist e-mails that it coordinates the story and talking point ahead of time to support the government position.”

    If one wants to see why John posts such careless stupid post one has only to read this. See the generalization fallacy (making a conclusion about “the media” based on the actions of some members [and opinion columnists for the most part no less!]) and the factual error (the list was trying to help the Obama campaign, the “government position” at the time would have been a Bush position).

    1. What’s even better is that the “journolist” thing lends more evidence to the idea that the media is not in the bag for anyone since what they were bitching about on that list was the negative treatment the Obama campaign was getting from major anchors of major networks!

      1. And plotting on how to fix that. Which they were pretty effective at doing.

    2. 400 of the most important and influential journalists in Washington had a private e-mail board where discussed things like how to kill the Jeremiah Wright story and which Republicans to falsely accuse of racism today. Not one conservative was ever allowed on the list. And no one ever objected to the overall goal of advancing the liberal agenda, which is now the government agenda.

      You are only defensive about it because it is so damaging MNG.

      1. See the reasoning? Though only a few columinists said anything that could be taken as shady, all 400, nay, all the media are impugned!

        Ah the fallacy of generalization, where would hacks be without ya!

        1. If the media is not on your side, why are you so quick to defend them? It is almost as if you have a partisan interest in the major media being credible. If they are so unbiased and go after Democrats so much, it should bother you if their credibility is destroyed. If they are neutral, then it shouldn’t hurt either side right?

          I know, you care so much about the country and the need for a major media right? Right?

  10. Somewhere in this hour they mentioned having heard that Putin personally took control of the firefighting equipment on one aircraft:

  11. Their system is fine, it’s that the right people aren’t in charge.

  12. Well played Putin. Well played.

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