Russia: Halt Orders
To Block Online Media

By on April 7, 2014

Proposed Law Would Further Restrict Public Debate

(Moscow, March 24, 2014) – Russian authorities have blocked several independent websites and are proposing new laws that would further restrict freedom of expression, Human Rights Watch said today. 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.

“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.”

For more Human Rights Watch reporting on Russia, please visit: https://www.hrw.org/europecentral-asia/russia