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, 

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.