Freedom of Speech Is Under the Gun as the Virus Spreads in Russia

Tatiana Voltskaya, poet, Radio Svoboda journalist, and member of the St. Petersburg PEN Club, is facing criminal charges under a new provision of the criminal code addressing “fakes” that went into effect last month.

“Public dissemination of known false information on circumstances that represent a threat to the life and security of the public.” The charges stem from an interview she conducted in which an emergency room doctor spoke about the lack of medical personnel and respirators in St. Petersburg hospitals. In a separate incident around the same time, Dr. Natalya Trofimova, who told the press (including the leading independent newspaper Novaya Gazeta) that there were inadequate supplies of personal protective equipment, was fired from a hospital in Leningrad Oblast.

News from regions throughout Russia of warnings, reports, and other persecution of journalists, bloggers, medics, and active users of social networks under the new law is flowing into human rights organizations and the Mass Media Defense Center. “The impression is that investigative agencies are ready to write up a report on anyone who expresses an opinion or distributes information that does not agree with the official point of view,” Galina Arapova, director of the MMDC and a board member of Article 19 said. “The new law criminalizes so-called fakes. Moreover, it extends not only to the media but to any groups discussing the pandemic. Today this provision is the main problem.”

Elena Milashina is one of the journalists being defended by the MMDC. She had written an article for Novaya Gazeta about the persecution of people infected with the coronavirus in Chechnya. The next day Ramzan Kadyrov, the head of the republic, responded on Instagram, calling the publication a fake, and threatened retaliation. This is not the first time Novaya Gazeta journalists have been threatened. Milashina is a young colleague of the famed reporter Anna Politkovskaya who was working for the newspaper when she was killed in October 2006. More than 100 human rights activists and public figures wrote to the head of the Investigative Committee of the Russian Republic to start a case about this threat. PEN-Moscow, the Union of Journalists and Media Workers, the Council on Human Rights, and the EU called on Russia to investigate and protect the journalist.

The law and order agencies do not always respond adequately,” said Galina Arapova, of the MMDC. “In February, Milashina was attacked in Chechnya, and the Investigative Committee still has not reacted to her request to open a criminal case. This position creates a dangerous precedent for impunity.”

Russia is not the only country that has passed legislation and measures temporarily limiting freedom of expression of opinion in connection with the virus. However, Russia’s new limitations fell on well-tilled ground: According to the MMDC and other experts, more than 25 laws and regulatory documents limiting freedom of speech and the work of journalists have been passed in recent years—usually quickly and without public discussion. New initiatives in the coronavirus era show that the attack on freedom of speech and civil rights is entering a new phase.

The new proposals include mandatory registration of mobile telephones with the factory International Mobile Equipment Identity number beginning in 2021, including people who bring smartphones from abroad. Officials explain that the measure was enacted out of concern for the public; it will be easier to deal with stolen phones. There’s also a drafted version of law that would give police almost unlimited powers, including searching cars without a warrant.

Grigory Yavlinsky, leader of the Yabloko Party, has spoken out against the coming “digital slavery” with concrete proposals—including creating a Public Commission to control the state’s use of digital technology. He considers this a priority task.

Personal safety and even human life in a pandemic depend on truth as much as proper medical decisions, according to Syndicate-100, the new consortium of independent Russian media with such members as Ekho Moskvy radio, Novaya Gazeta, Altapress, and Dozhd.

“Today the independent press needs public support more than ever. Humans lives are the price of every stifled independent publication. This is no metaphor. It is reality,” said Syndicate-100 members in their appeal. The appeal is not directed to the authorities but to their audience, and that is important.

Many people in isolation have become more critical of the government’s handling of the pandemic and are showing solidarity in social networks and everyday activities. People are volunteering and supporting one another through the difficult times. And many regional media have removed paywalls.

I recently asked Svetlana Alexievich, winner of the 2015 Nobel Prize in Literature, if she saw similarities between the pandemic and the accident at the Chernobyl nuclear power plant in April 1986. “Yes, but Chernobyl was a regional disaster and the pandemic is a global problem that requires global rethinking of many basic things about our life.”

The coronavirus pandemic is a challenge to all nations. New ideas and practices are needed to adapt to the changing world, and there are available options, including solidarity and mutual aid. An option for Russians is to stand together to demand civil freedoms, truth, and real dialogue in society. It’s an opportunity to build a better future.

Translated by Antonina W. Bouis

By Nadezhda Azhgikhina