Anonymous people have free speech

Russia: attack on freedom of expression

(Moscow) - Russia massively restricts free speech online, monitors online activity in a privacy-invasive manner, and persecutes critics under the guise of fighting extremism, Human Rights Watch said in a report released today.

The 83-page report "Online and On All Fronts: Russia’s Assault on Freedom of Expression" documents that the Russian authorities have intensified their attempts to bring the Internet under greater state control. Since 2012, the Russian authorities have unjustifiably prosecuted dozens of people for social media posts, videos, media reports and interviews. They also switched off hundreds of websites and portals or blocked access to them. The authorities have also enforced a number of repressive laws in parliament that regulate online content and infrastructure. These laws provide the Russian government with multiple options for restricting access to information, unsupervised surveillance, and censoring information that the government deems to be “extremist,” contrary to “traditional values,” or otherwise harmful.

"The Russian authorities are attacking freedom of expression," said Yulia Gorbunova, Russia expert at Human Rights Watch. "These laws not only introduce tough policies, they also represent blatant human rights violations."

Russia should withdraw the repressive laws passed in recent years, no longer persecute critics under the guise of counter-extremism, and honor its international commitment to protecting freedom of expression, according to Human Rights Watch.

The report is based on interviews with more than 50 lawyers, journalists, editors, political and human rights activists, experts, bloggers and their families. He analyzes laws and government guidelines relating to Internet content and freedom of expression, as well as indictments, court judgments and other relevant documents.

Some laws apparently aim to limit the space for public discussion, including on the Internet. This applies in particular to issues that the authorities consider controversial or sensitive, such as the armed conflict in Ukraine, Russia's role in the war in Syria, the rights of LGBT people, as well as public protests and other political and civil society engagement.

Restrictions on freedom of speech prevent public disputes and take the vote from anyone who is dissatisfied with the ongoing economic crisis or Russian foreign policy.

"There have been dozens of cases where people have literally been jailed," Andrei Soldatov, a investigative journalist and expert on internet freedom in Russia, told Human Rights Watch. "Of course, this has an impact on the level and freedom of discussion in social media."

Other laws undermine the privacy and security of Internet users by regulating data storage, unjustifiably restricting access to information and ensuring that extensive data, including confidential user information, can be made available to the authorities in some cases without judicial review.

In 2016, Parliament passed a number of counter-terrorism-related legislative changes requiring telecommunications and internet companies to keep all communication content for six months and metadata for three years. This law makes it easier for authorities to identify users and access personal information without judicial review, which is an unjustified invasion of privacy and freedom of expression. A law from 2015, which affects email services, social networks and search engines, forbids storing the personal data of Russian citizens on servers outside of Russia. A 2017 draft law prohibits users of Internet messaging services such as WhatsApp or Telegram from remaining anonymous.

"The Russian government de facto controls the traditional media, but independent internet users have openly criticized government measures," said Gorbunova. "The authorities obviously see these people as a threat who must be disarmed."

The authorities have increasingly used vague and overly broad anti-extremism laws against those who express critical views of the government, and in some cases have equated criticism of the government with extremism. The anti-extremism laws, which came into force in 2012, serve to increase the number of proceedings for extremist crimes, especially on the Internet.

Data from the SOVA Center, a renowned Russian think tank, shows that 216 social media users were convicted of extremist offenses in 2015, compared with 30. Between 2014 and 2016, around 85 percent of the convictions were guilty “Extremist speech” for expressing opinions on the Internet. The sentences ranged from fines and community hours to prison sentences. Between September 2015 and February 2017, 54 people had to go to prison for “extremist” speech, including on the Internet. In February 2017, the number rose suddenly to 94.

In the wake of the Russian occupation of Crimea, which has now lasted three years, the authorities silenced dissidents on the peninsula. They act aggressively against critics by harassing them, intimidating them and, in some cases, opening bogus extremism proceedings against them, for example because of “separatist demands”. Most criminal cases against Crimean Tatar activists, their lawyers and others have been initiated for their peaceful criticism of the occupation.

Freedom of expression is one of the most important pillars of a democratic society and not only protects information and ideas that are favorably received, but also those that offend, shock or unsettle. The Russian government should respect and uphold the right of its citizens to freely obtain and disseminate all kinds of information protected by international human rights law.

Russia's international partners are expected to raise concerns about Moscow's restrictions on freedom of speech to the United Nations Human Rights Council, the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe and the Council of Europe, and also to raise the issue in bilateral talks with the Russian government.

Large internet companies active in Russia, such as Twitter, Facebook, Microsoft, Google and the UK, should carefully review the Russian government’s requirements to censor content and release user data and disregard them if the underlying law or a specific request is made contradicts international human rights standards. You are not supposed to put people in danger.

"The Russian government portrays critics as extremists. In this way it creates a climate of fear and promotes self-censorship," said Gorbunova. "People in Russia today are more unsure than ever what the limits of acceptable speech are."