Friday, July 22, 2005

Interview with Mikael Storsjö

From the Finnish journal SixDegrees, an interview with Finland-Swedish businessman Mikael Storsjö, who last year rescued the Chechen resistance information site Kavkaz Center from being shut down after pressure from the Russian government and special services:

SixDegrees met Mikael Storsjö, a man who hosted web pages of the Chechen news agency on a Finnish server,, which resulted in the Finnish security police coming after him hours after opening the site. How did a Finland-Swede IT-entrepreneur become involved with the Chechen resistance movement?

Storsjö prefers to talk about freedom of speech rather than having a narrow discussion on terrorism; he thinks both sides of the conflict should be heard equally.

How did you come into contact with Chechen resistance?

Since my childhood, I have had an interest in Caucasus, ever since I started reading Tolstoi’s books. Over the years, I have been following several web pages, including Kavkaz-Center, which I suddenly noticed had been closed down. As I run a web hotel and we have freedom of speech in Finland, I welcomed them to put up their web server in our web hotel. They warned me about the political consequences, but, at that point, I didn’t think it would ever become such a big issue.

How long did it take until it was found out that you were hosting that web page?

Very shortly after opening the site in Finland, some Russians spotted it and found out that the page was located on Sonera’s network. After that, some politicians and the Ministry of the Interior contacted the Security Police and gave them an order to check out what was happening. Also on the same day, Sonera was asked to shut the site down which they didn’t do since they couldn’t see any reason to do so without criminal evidence. However, they gave my information to the Security Police and the next morning I received a phone call from them. They suggested a meeting and two police officers were in my office in less than ten minutes.

Should Sonera have given out your information?

I don’t think it was appropriate. On the other hand, we know that Sonera is not very safe when it comes to confidentiality. It wasn’t illegal but not really necessary.

What happened when you met the Security Police officers?

They told me that what I was doing was a dangerous activity in the international context and thus asked me to take the server down. I said that I didn’t find anything illegal in this activity and told them that I was not prepared to do so. When I asked them whether they could point out anything criminal on the site, they replied that there was some harsh language and hatred on a discussion forum; some Russians had apparently said that they hoped to place a nuclear bomb over Chechnya to get rid of the people.

According to Finnish law, discussion forums are not part of the Internet publication and therefore are not the editor-in-chief’s responsibility. There is a special value in these kinds of websites because every conflict has at least two sides and it is not fair that only one side can get their opinions out to the public. The same evening they called me asking for more information. They had translated 30-40 pages of text from the Russian version of the site into Finnish because neither of the police officers spoke Russian.

I wonder, as a citizen, how efficiently the police are using their scarce resources. Some four people worked with this issue, around the clock, during the weekend, while other duties were neglected because of lack of funds, I find this upsetting. I also think that the police have misunderstood their role in a democratic society. They should protect the people to use their constitutional rights, not to convince people to give their rights away.

Did they consider Chechens as terrorists?

No, I don’t think they did. It was more a question of how Russian authorities will look upon the issue. We mostly discussed the political situation in Russia, the media and how the society is becoming militarized.

Did you feel that the pressure originated from Russia or it just to prevent that pressure happening?

I would say that it is the second alternative. For example, Erkki Tuomioja, Minister of Foreign Affairs, expressed on his web site that the Ministry of Foreign Affairs immediately took steps to stop the website once they had found out about it. However, he was wrongly informed thinking that it was a site encouraging people to take terrorist action. I heard that in the end he did not find his own actions very appropriate and changed his website.

Have you learnt what people are so afraid of in those pages?

The pages have many readers, especially in Russia where there are only a few oppositional media. The government is keeping everything else under strict control. They are afraid that too many people follow this media and it will influence public opinion. This web page is somewhat radical, it represents an Islamic view. Anyway, I don’t think they support the fundamental Wahhabism movement, which according to some scientific studies has limited support in Chechnya.

The Russian government fears Muslims and Islamic movements; they simply don’t know how to handle the situation with diminishing population combined with a growing number of Muslims. A third reason is the person who started, Movladi Udugov, the Minister of Media and Information in Dudaev’s Government during the first Chechnya war. Russians are very afraid of Muslim attacks and have personal hatred against Udugov, who won the propaganda war during the first Chechen war.

How did you put it up again?

I tried to put the server up here in Finland into some other web hotels but they all refused because they were afraid of having the Security Police running around their corridors. The following step was to fix a new Internet connection myself. I tried to do that in my living room but the delivery time was too long. In the end, I called a company in Sweden that had some slightly anarchistic pages and a lot of media turbulence around them. After half-an-hour, they called me back and asked me to come there with my server.

Have you had any further contact with the Security Police?

Not anything similar to their first visits, but they are interested in knowing what is happening. I have been in contact with them myself because I have nothing to hide. I feel, as a taxpayer, that they should not need to work finding information that I can give them directly! One of these police officers was invited and came to our company’s Christmas party! They are just doing their job and I have nothing against keeping them informed, on the contrary, the better they are informed the smaller the risk that they will do something stupid.

Has Russian Security contacted you?

I had a discussion with one bureaucrat from the Russian Embassy when the site was shut down. That discussion was meaningless because he just kept telling me how good everything is in Chechnya, how it is being rebuilt and there is only a handful of terrorists. You cannot have a real discussion if the other person lives in denial. Either he is a liar or maybe he really believes this because he only reads Russian news!

It is not regarded as a problem that over the years about 250,000 people have been killed and hundreds of people are still killed each year. In Russia, nobody speaks about it and nobody knows about it. There have not been any contacts from the Russian side except when I went to Caucasus at turn of the year. I applied for a visa to Russia via the Finland-Russia association but I was refused. The clerk at the association asked the consulate why and she was told - you know why. Apparently, I am a persona non grata for them.

How did the media learn about the story?

I have been working in media and I know it is very important to get your own version out. I contacted Hufvudstadsbladet, where I knew a reporter and told him the story. It could have been a discussion about terrorists, but I preferred to discuss freedom of speech. By going first to the press, I succeeded in turning the discussion towards the topic of my preference. That is why I got most politicians and human rights activists to support me. If I had been quiet, they would have referred to me as some monster with a terrorist site in Finland.

Does freedom of speech exist in Western society or is it a myth?

It exists here more than in communist, fascist or Islamic countries, for example. The main problem is that freedom of speech demands money. As Churchill said, “Democracy is a bad governmental system but the best one we know”. The same applies to the freedom of speech in the Western world - it is not perfect but it is the best we know.

What’s the future of Chechnya?

It is clear that you cannot solve the conflict by violence. This war has been ongoing for 400 years. During the Caucasus war in the 19th century more than half of the population was killed, and during the deportation in 1944 one third died. During Putin’s and Yeltsin’s wars, one fourth of the population have been killed. All that together is more than 100 percent! Many Russians have been killed too; they have lost close to 25,000 soldiers, which cost society a great deal. I hope that one day they will make a political deal that is perfect for both parties, though anything is better than the present situation. I think we will see a free Chechnya one day but many lives will be lost before that.


Born 1957 in Fiskars

M.Sc. (Econ)

Entrepreneur in EDP business since 1983

Running a business centre (Office House) since 1986

Freelance journalist

Interests: reading, Internet, political history, organizational activities, different kinds of outdoor activities

Summer plans: trekking a couple of weeks in Greater Caucasus mountains (Azerbaijan and Georgia)

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