Russia, 2016-2017

In recent years, the Russian government has introduced various kinds of restrictions in the field of freedom of speech and self expression. Repressive laws have been adopted, allowing punishment up to imprisonment for creativity and expression of opinions. The uncertainty of wording in such laws, in particular concerning extremism, allows for extensive interpretation in courts, which leads to considerable increase in persecutions of journalists, bloggers, independent media, and authors. Censorship embraces more and more spheres. Various manifestations of dissent, and creative search of artists who do not fit into the ideological mainstream or just express critique, are becoming targetsfor hurray-patriots and hooligans. The lack of official reaction to these attacks, as well as the obvious violations of the rights of journalists and artists, including threats and violence, instigate a dangerous atmosphere of tolerance towards censorship and abuse in the society, and form the environment of impunity.

This report is an attempt at a comprehensive analysis of the situation with freedom of speech and freedom of creativity in Russia, as well as of the trends, which cause particular anxiety.

In 2016, the tendency for tightening legislative regulation in the field of freedom of mass media continued, which resulted in the adoption of laws that severely restricted the right to access and disseminate information. Here, first of all, we should mention the “Yarovaya Package” of amendments granting the authorities dramatically increased powers of surveillance and prosecution against so-called extremists. This Package hasinitiated non accomplishable terms for the participants of the information exchange because it prescribes to store all information of Internet carriers for a long time, including information about the correspondence of all Internet users for 6 months.
Starting January 1, 2016, restrictions were imposed on foreign investment and foreign management in the information sphere, and this has already affected 831 media agencies and many international publishing houses. Many of them were forced to leave the country.

Changes in the electoral legislation have brought about the situation when only accredited journalistsare allowed to be presents at the polling stations, while the accreditation procedure of journalists has become more complicated.

According to the Agora Association,only in 2016 116,103 cases of restricting the rights for disseminating information on the Internet were recorded, and most of them were connected with blocking and filtering. As many as 923 web resources have been included in the register of sites blocked for propagandizing extremism, although many of them have nothing to do with extremism and some are, in fact, anti-fascist.

At the same time, violations of journalists’ rights and crimes against journalists are not properly investigated, and the perpetrators remain unpunished. The article of the Law on “hindering the professional activity of journalists” is applied extremely rarely.Even the resonant episodesdid not result in the punishment of those responsible (an attack on the bus with journalists and human rights activists on the border between Chechnya and Ingushetia on March 9, 2016, threats of physical reprisal against the editor-in-chief of the Internet magazine “Caucasian Knot”, mortal threats aimed at the journalists of Novaya Gazeta and Echo of Moscow in March 2017afterNovaya had published the results of investigation on persecution of LGBT community representatives in Chechnya, and many other cases of physical violence and intimidation of journalists). Moreover, official media launch rumors that opposition journalists produce “fake news” in search of sensation. Investigations of crimes against journalists develop extremely slowly, most of the murders are not investigated at all, and even if perpetrators have been punished, as in the case of Anna Politkovskaya’s murder on October 7, 2006, those who ordered these assassinations remain unknown and enjoy freedom.
At the same time, the number of cases of criminal prosecution of journalists and bloggers has grown (out of 47 cases in 201619 people were bloggers). Experts are concerned about falsification of charges, and excessive cruelty of punishment. The last case of this kind is 3,5 years of suspended sentence for the blogger Ruslan Sokolovsky for “insulting the feelings of believers”.

In 2017, the number of episodes of detention of journalists covering mass protest actions increased, only on March 26, 2017 more than 15 professionals were detained during the “Anticorruption March” in various cities of Russia. In September 2016, a group of journalists was detained during the coverage of the 12th anniversary of the terrorist attack in Beslan. This and other episodes ended without punishment for the guilty authorities.

In 2016-2017, dozens of journalists and Internet authors suffered from targeted hacking of their personal accounts.

Censorship in Russia is prohibited by the Constitution. However, it manifests itself in various forms not only against the media, but also against literature, cinema, theater, publishers and librarians. Legislative requirements to protect children from undesirable information are in fact a way of limiting the publication of many authors working in experimental formats or simply known for their proactive critical views.
The zeal of local judicial bodies and illiterate parents brought about the list of “dangerous” books which from time to time is expanded not only by addingworks of contemporary authors, but also byincluding Russian classics, such asBunin, Dostoevsky, Tolstoy. The books are banned from libraries, and it is sometimes difficult to put an end to this arbitrariness. The application of the law on prohibition of the propaganda of unconventional sexual relations among under-aged minors has also turned into censorship de facto.

Modern theatrehas also become a target of censorship. Teatr.doc. and such directors as Konstantin Bogomolov, Kirill Serebrennikov, and Timofei Kulyabin with his“Tannhauser” in the Novosibirsk Opera and Ballet Theater, and even the National“Golden Mask” Award became objects of criticism and repressive measures for “destruction of traditional values”. The practice of “raider” seizure of theatre premises by pro-government structures and the replacement of independent free-thinking peoplein the management of the theaters has become widespread.

The Ministry of Culture of the Russian Federation is increasingly reminiscent of the Soviet one. Putting forth the thesis of the desirable “usefulness” of culture, Minister Vladimir Medynsky said, “We will only water those flowers that are useful”. Another quote is: “The goal of the Ministry of Culture is not art, but the physical and spiritual health of the nation”. The principle of the normative nature of creativity is asserted, and only those projects that correspond to the ideological mainstream get state funding. The patterns and approaches of “socialist realism”are beingrevived.

One of the most active censors is the Russian Orthodox Church, which has become closelyentwined with the state and, in fact, adopted the practices of the Ideological Department of the CPSU Central Committee. The church supports aggressive marginal groups of “religious activists” who apply intimidation and insulting toward artists, smash exhibitions and disrupt performances, attack writers and artists physically, claiming that they express the “voice of the people”. The new phenomenon in 2016-17 was the attacking of independent journalists and authors with theantiseptic solution of brilliant green, and none of the perpetrators has been brought to justice. As in the times of the tsarist empire, the new “Black Hundred”, the official Orthodox priests, and reactionary politicians have joined their efforts against creative search, civil activities and all kinds of free-thinking. The removal of Timofei Kulyabin’s opera from the repertoire in Novosibirsk, the attempts to ban the film “Matilda”by Alexei Uchitel about Nicholas II that has not yet appeared on the screens, attacks on works about the tragic pages of Russian history are links of this chain. The initiator of the ban on the film about Nicholas II was the deputy of the State Duma, the former prosecutor of the Crimea Natalia Poklonskaya, who traced sacrilege in the plot about the romantic relations of the then future emperor and the ballerina Matilda Kshesinskaya, as the last Russian emperor and his family were declared saints in 2000 as martyrs of the Bolsheviks.

Libraries became the object of attention of the prosecutor’s office almost immediately after the official publication of the “Federal List of Extremist Materials”. Currently, there are hundreds of cases involving prosecutorial intrusion into the life of libraries, and this activity increases every year. In fact, even in the instances when claims to librarians are formally grounded in anti-extremist legislation, it is difficult to consider them legitimate, since this legislation contradicts the Law “On Librarianship”.

The claims of executive bodies to libraries arise virtually in all areas of restricting freedom of speech. Books are withdrawn from funds, even those not included in the official list of extremist materials, librarians are held accountable for the presence of innocuous books (including children’s books) in their funds only because they reflect the real problems of the modern world, such as an ambiguous attitude to the history of the country, non-traditional sexual orientation, ambiguous attitude towards religion, etc.

The vague wording of the Law on Extremism allows censorship to stop any critique whatsoever. According to the “Sova” Information and Analysis Center, in 2016, 64 people (45 people in 2015) were imprisoned for expressing “extremist” views in Russia. Actually, the number of those sentenced for “extremist statements” was higher than for other “extremist crimes” taken together (the latter being for different types of violence committed on the basis of hatred motive)

Criticism of the Russian policy towards Ukraine continues to be a risk factor. Despite the appeals of renowned figures of art and literature to the country’s leadership, Oleg Sentsov,the Ukrainian director, scriptwriter and author sentenced to 20 years in a strict regime colony for creating a terrorist community in the Crimea, remains in camp. Alexander Kolchenko, Alexander Kostenko, and others were also convicted under similar charges. The case of Natalya Sharina, director of the Moscow Library of Ukrainian Literature, which has been under home arrest since 2015, is still ongoing, she is accused of spreading extremist literature. Experts consider her case to be fabricated. Persecution of the Crimean journalists and bloggers continues. Despite the public calls to permit him to leave the country so that he can get medical treatment, journalist Nikolai Semena still cannot leave the Crimea.

The report contains detailed information on the cases listed above, as well as on many other cases requiring public attention.