* Any views expressed in this article are those of the author and not of Thomson Reuters Foundation.Tweet Widget Facebook Like Email Russian authorities have blocked several independent websites and are proposing new laws that would further restrict freedom of expression. These moves, together with the detention of hundreds of peaceful protesters since early March 2014, are part of a new crackdown on free expression and assembly as the crisis unfolds in neighboring Ukraine.
(Moscow) - Russian authorities have blocked several independent websites and are proposing new laws that would further restrict freedom of expression. These moves, together with the detention of hundreds of peaceful protesters since early March 2014, are part of a newcrackdown on free expression and assembly as the crisis unfolds in neighboring Ukraine.
"This new crackdown is aimed at silencing voices in Russia that are critical of the government at a time when open, public debate is essential," said Hugh Williamson, Europe and Central Asia director at Human Rights Watch. "Russia should foster a media-friendly climate instead of persistently quashing it."
The dismissal in March of the editor-in-chief and executive director of one of the last remaining major online outlets providing objective coverage of current affairs has seriously compromised the website's independence. The only remaining major independent television channel is on the verge of bankruptcy after an official warning against it in January prompted major cable and satellite providers to drop it. In March the authorities blocked three opposition media websites for allegedly publishing banned content.
Roskomnadzor, the Russia state body for media oversight, blocked the three websites under a new law, which entered into force in February. The law authorizes the prosecutor general to request the agency to block access to websites if they contain "extremist" content, call for mass riots, or call for participation in unsanctioned public gatherings. The authorities are not required to obtain a court order or even inform the website prior to blocking it, although website owners can appeal the decision.
"The new law puts any media outlet in Russia at the mercy of the authorities," Williamson said. "By circumventing the court, the prosecutor and Roskomnadzor can arbitrarily block online media and other websites without their knowledge and deny them an opportunity to challenge the allegations in court until after the fact."
On March 4 renowned university professor, Andrei Zubov, alleged that he had been threatened with dismissal from his position at Moscow State University for International Affairs (MGIMO) for publishing an essay condemning Russia's involvement in Crimea. He told Human Rights Watch that the university management denied that they had tried to fire him. Zubov remains at his job but said that he has since faced pressure. He told Human Rights Watch that MGIMO management informed him they would no longer authorize his trips to international conferences and meetings, and that he would be found in violation of his contract if he attempted to travel abroad for work.
Also in early March, as the crisis in Ukraine escalated, Russian policymakers said they would propose laws that would impose heavy restrictions on mass media and research centers. One proposal, reportedly prompted by independent media coverage of the crisis in Ukraine, would introduce administrative and criminal offenses for editors who publish "false anti-Russian" information or offer media support to "anti-Russian extremist and separatist forces." Another proposal, announced in February, would require bloggers with more than 10,000 visitors a day to register as mass media outlets and to comply with all relevant legal regulations on media.
Yet another proposal would expand the scope of Russia's "foreign agents" law to include certain research organizations and universities. The 2012 "foreign agents" law requires any group receiving foreign funding and engaged in broadly defined "political activities" to register as "foreign agents," which in a Russian, ex-Soviet context is unequivocally understood to mean a traitor or a spy. Human Rights Watch said the law is meant to cast the Kremlin's critics as clandestine enemies working against Russia's national interests.
Russian authorities should rescind orders to block access to the three online portals, stop interfering in their management, and ensure media freedom, Human Rights Watch said. The authorities should also drop recent legislative initiatives that would impinge on freedom of expression online and suppress independent groups.
Against the backdrop of the crackdown on human rights in the past 20 months, a reference by President Vladimir Putin to "national traitors" in his March 18, 2014, speech to the parliament is alarming, Human Rights Watch said. In his speech Putin said, "Some Western politicians are already threatening us with not just sanctions but also with the prospect of increasingly serious problems on the domestic front. I would like to know what it is they have in mind exactly: action by a fifth column, this disparate bunch of ‘national traitors'…?"
In 2012 Russia's parliament amended the criminal code to expand the legal definition of treason in ways that could criminalize, among other things, involvement in international human rights advocacy.
"We are deeply concerned that authorities throughout Russia's regions could read Putin's comments to mean that anyone who criticizes government policies, including policies regarding Ukraine, could be a traitor," Williamson said. "The consequences for anyone who speaks out and for freedom of expression could be devastating."
Intensified Crackdown on Media Lenta.ru On March 12, 2014, Galina Timchenko, editor-in-chief of Lenta.ru, an independent, current affairs portal, was dismissed from her post and replaced by a media executive who was the editor of Vzglyad.ru, an online outlet with a strong pro-Kremlin editorial line. Media coverage of Timchenko's firing, including Lenta.ru's own coverage, reported that the site's owner fired Timchenko without explanation. A few hours earlier, the website received a letter from Roskomnadzor regarding a link in a Lenta.ru article about the Ukrainian ultranationalist paramilitary group Right Sektor. The link referenced a 2008 interview with the group's leader, Dmitro Yarosh, in which he allegedly made statements Roskomnadzor qualified as "incitement of national discord," or extremist.
Sixty-nine Lenta.ru employees signed a public statement that criticized Timchenko's sudden dismissal, denounced the pressure on Lenta.ru's independent reporting, and noted the "dramatic" shrinking of space for media freedom in Russia. Since Timchenko's dismissal, 39 Lenta.ru employees have resigned, among them 32 journalists.
The Lenta.ru executive director, Yulia Minder, was fired by the website's owner the following day, also without explanation. Both Minder and Timchenko have worked atLenta.ru in various capacities since its founding in 1999.
Lenta.ru has been one of the few remaining sources of independent news coverage in Russia. The representative on media freedom for the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe, Dunja Mijatovic, called Timchenko's dismissal a "clear sign of censorship and government's meddling" in media freedom.
New Legal Grounds for Blocking Websites: The "Lugovoi" Law On December 25, 2013, Russia's parliament adopted amendments to the Law on Information, Information Technology, and Information Protection that empowered the prosecutor general's office to order the authorities to block online sources within 24 hours without any court approval.
The measure, the "Lugovoi" law, named after the parliament member who sponsored it, entered into force on February 1, 2014. It authorizes the prosecutor general or his deputies to ask Roskomnadzor to block access to media that disseminates calls for mass riots, extremist activities, or participation in unsanctioned mass public events. The law specifies that the prosecutor's office must provide Roskomnadzor with the name of the domain on which the site is hosted, the site's web address, and the specific pages where the banned content could be "identified."
Once Roskomnadzor receives the request, the agency must immediately notify Internet service providers about the banned content. The provider then must immediately block access to the website and has 24 hours to notify the website's owners, which must at once remove the banned content. Website owners can appeal the decision to a court.
In December 2013, when the law was adopted, the Presidential Human Rights Council advised the president against signing it, calling it excessively restrictive and warning about its potential for selective, arbitrary implementation.
Independent or Opposition Media, Websites Blocked In March 2014 Roskomnadzor blocked three opposition websites: Grani.ru, an opposition online news service known for its staunchly anti-Kremlin reporting; Kasparov.ru, the website of former chess champion and opposition figure Gary Kasparov; and EJ.ru, an opposition opinion website. The prosecutor's office instructed Roskomnadzor to put them on a list of websites that allegedly host banned content because they "contain calls for illegal activity and participation in public events held in violation of the established order," said an explanation on the Roskomnadzor website.
Grani.ru had sharply criticized police conduct during the May 6, 2012, mass protest on Moscow's Bolotnaya Square, toward the end of which there were scattered clashes between police and several dozen protesters. The website also persistently criticized the criminal prosecution of Bolotnaya protesters. Yulia Berezovskaya, general director of Grani.ru, told Human Rights Watch that Roskomnadzor never informed them what exact banned material their website contained:
The authorities themselves do not follow the provisions of the [new] law. Government officials are supposed to tell us which of our publications calls for illegal actions, for example [calls for] unsanctioned actions. But [they told us] nothing.; therefore, we cannot correct anything until we know what our "fault" was.
Kirill Poludin, editor for the Kasparov.ru website, also told Human Rights Watch that Roskomnadzor had blocked the site without providing any information about which particular publications were found to be in violation of the law:
We sent a request for further information to Roskomnadzor, but Roskomnadzor explained to us that they were just administrators and that the decision had been made by the prosecutor general's office and we should ask there. But the prosecutor general is keeping quiet and by law they have 30 days to reply to us. But what's important is that [in violation of the law] no one told us what exactly we are supposed to correct to remove the blocking of the website.
The Live Journal blog of the opposition politician Alexei Navalny was also blocked because it allegedly violated the terms of his two-month house arrest, which began on February 28, 2014.
On March 13 Roskomnadzor issued a warning to Echo of Moscow, one of Russia's last remaining independent news services. The warning concerned Navalny's blog, hosted by Echo of Moscow's website. After Roskomnadzor also notified Internet service providers that the blog contained banned information, several providers began blocking access to the website. Echo of Moscow removed the blog and asked Roskomnadzor to indicate the content in Navalny's blog that was allegedly in violation of the law. Access to the website was re-established in Russia on March 14.
Access to Grani.ru, Kasparov.ru, and EJ.ru remain blocked.
Dozhd TV (TV Rain) In January several major cable and satellite providers took Dozhd TV (in English, TV Rain), an independent television station, off the air for posing a question on its website for readers' feedback about whether the Soviet government should have surrendered the city of Leningrad (now St. Petersburg) to the German army to save lives during World War II. The Nazi blockade of Leningrad lasted nearly 900 days, during which nearly all food, water, and medical supplies were cut off. Thousands of civiliansdied of hunger and deprivation. This deadly siege and the human suffering it brought are of iconic significance for many Russians.
Several members of parliament criticized Dozhd TV for the poll as insensitive and offensive to survivors of the blockade and Russia's war veterans. Members of the St. Petersburg city legislature called for the channel to be closed down. The Dozhd TV general director, Natalia Sindeyeva, publicly apologized for publishing the poll.
On January 30 the St. Petersburg prosecutor's office began an investigation into the incident, including for potential "incitement of hatred toward an individual or a group." The prosecutor's office reportedly found no violations of the extremism law. Roskomnadzor found that the channel had violated article 49 of the law "on mass media," a vague provision obliging journalists to respect people's rights and interests, and issued a letter reminding the channel of its obligation to follow the law. Such letters from Roskomnadzor are intended to deter media from possible future violations. The letter did not say that Dozhd TV would face any punitive sanctions or should be blocked from broadcasting. However, within days all major cable and satellite television providers dropped Dozhd TV, causing it to lose 80 percent of its income.
On March 4 Sindeyeva announced that the channel was insolvent and only had resources to survive another month.
On March 20 Dozhd TV received a letter from owners of the building where its studio is located. The letter, which was posted online by the channel and viewed by Human Rights Watch, informed Dozhd TV that its lease would not be extended once it expires in June 2014. It is unclear what prompted this notice.
Dozhd TV is one of the few private media outlets with an independent editorial policy and broadcasts through private cable and satellite providers and on the Internet. Dozhd TV often challenges the government's narrative and gives air time to opposition leaders who are not heard on the state controlled media.
New Legislative Proposals Ban on "Anti-Russian" Information in Media In an interview for the newspaper Izvestia published on March 6, Yevgeny Fyodorov, a member of parliament, announced that he is preparing a draft law to introduce amendments to Russia's administrative and criminal codes, as well as to the laws on combating terrorism and extremism. The planned amendments would establish administrative and criminal liability for media executives who "allow publication of false anti-Russian information and provide media support to anti-Russian extremist and separatist forces, inter alia, in their description of events outside Russia."
Media reports said Fyodorov justified the proposed amendments by alleging that in their coverage of the Ukraine crisis, some Russian publications had used "incorrect historical analogies and interpretations of events in Russia and the state coup in Ukraine."
The proposed amendments would qualify such actions as a "deliberate deception of an audience by media professionals aimed at supporting terrorism, intervention, separatism, and genocide" as an offense against the state. The new offense would appear in section 10 of the Russian Criminal Code ("Crimes Against the State"), which includes, among other things, articles on inciting hatred or discord, espionage, treason, and armed rebellion.
No official draft is available yet in the parliament's online database.
New Restrictions on Bloggers Izvestia also cited a source in the lower house of parliament's Committee on Information Technologies as saying that the committee was developing amendments to the Law on Media imposing strict regulations on blogs, which so far remained a relatively unrestricted space for critical voices. Under the proposal, blogs with more than 10,000 visitors a day would be obliged to register as mass media and comply with all relevant legal obligations of media, including the obligation to obtain accreditation and publish only verified information.
The same article said that the committee's first deputy chairman, Vadim Dengin, confirmed that work on the amendments was under way and that popular bloggers were "personalities of a federal scale" and therefore should operate "within a legal framework."
No official draft is available yet in the parliament's online database.
Possible Broadening of the Law on "Foreign Agents" In September 2013, following strong criticism within Russia and abroad, and with the Winter Olympics fast approaching, Putin said that the "foreign agents" law would be amended. At the time, observers believed this might have led to a softening of the law.
Instead, Russia's authorities are proposing amendments to expand the scope of the "foreign agents" law to include research organizations and universities. Speaking to the Federation Council on March 5, 2014, Yuri Chikhanchin, the head of Rosfinmonitoring, the federal service for financial monitoring aimed at fighting money laundering, accused international organizations of financing radicals in Ukraine and sponsoring some public institutions in Russia, and advocated extending the definition of a "foreign agent."
A February joint report by pro-government research centers, the Russian Institute for Strategic Studies and the Center for Contemporary Politics, described eight institutions it considers "foreign agents," including the Institute of Sociology of the Russian Academy of Sciences, one of the leading state academic intuitions.
The report says that these institutions should be considered "foreign agents" because they receive foreign funding and engage in "political activities" in Russia.
Several members of parliament voiced their support for this initiative, media reported. No official draft is available yet in parliament's online database.