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Ukrainian journalist Natalia Sedletska (file photo)

Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty (RFE/RL) has welcomed a decision by the European Court of Human Rights (ECHR) on RFE/RL investigative reporter Natalia Sedletska’s case.

The ECHR on September 18 ordered Ukraine's government to ensure that the authorities there do not access any data from Sedletska’s cell phone.

In a statement on September 19, RFE/RL President Thomas Kent called the ECHR decision "fully justified."

The ECHR’s decision "is about the rights of journalists to protect the confidentiality of their sources and the right of the society to get free information, without censorship," Kent said.

He called it "a clear signal that persecution of journalists and interference with their work has nothing to do with international obligations of Ukraine to protect free press, which the Ukrainian government allegedly supports."

The ECHR order is an interim measure that gives Sedletska time to prepare a full complaint against a Ukrainian court ruling allowing investigators to review data from her cell phone. It remains in effect until October 18.

The ECHR pledged to consider her appeal "as a matter of priority."

RFE/RL said it "will provide the European Court will additional information and arguments in the defense" of the journalist.

On August 27, Kyiv's Pechersk District Court approved a request from the Prosecutor-General's Office to allow investigators to review all data from Sedletska's cell phone from July 1, 2016 through November 30, 2017.

The ruling stemmed from a criminal investigation into the alleged disclosure of state secrets to journalists in 2017 by Artem Sytnyk, director of the National Anticorruption Bureau of Ukraine.

Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty spokeswoman Joanna Levison said earlier this month that the court's ruling is "inconsistent with Ukraine's own commitments to promote and protect a free press."

On September 18, a Ukrainian appeals court ruled to restrict the original request to geolocation data from around the offices of the National AntcCorruption Bureau of Ukraine in Kyiv, but upheld the original time frame.

Sedletska is the host of Schemes, an award-winning anticorruption television program by RFE/RL's Ukrainian Service and Ukrainian Public Television.

The Schemes program reported on several investigations involving senior Ukrainian officials, including Prosecutor-General Yuriy Lutsenko, during the period in question.

The United States, the European Union, and international media watchdogs have expressed concern over the Ukrainian court ruling.

Russian police say sexual minorities are not a group protected under hate-speech laws.

Internet users in Russia have faced criminal hate-speech charges for mocking religion on social media, including for likening the Jon Snow character from Game Of Thrones to Jesus Christ.

But when a Russian LGBT activist complained to police about online comments saying "faggots should be pummeled" or "snuffed out," they said no laws were broken -- and that sexual minorities are not a group protected under hate-speech laws.

"The texts examined are not aimed at forming among readers a negative attitude toward individuals or a group of individuals singled out by nationality, race, religion, or social affiliation," reads one of the three police responses to complaints filed by Anna Plyusnina, a lawyer with the LGBT Resource Center in the Urals city of Yekaterinburg.

"The comments in question express a negative attitude toward homosexuals," police continued in the response, a copy of which was obtained by RFE/RL.

Plyusnina's decision to go public this week with the responses by regional police comes amid heightened national attention in Russia to criminal prosecutions over online content -- including satirical memes -- that authorities deem hate speech or insulting to religion.

Russia has undertaken a broad crackdown on online speech in recent years that critics say is aimed at stifling dissenting views and is abused by authorities to bolster conviction rates.

A spate of recent cases in the Siberian region of Altai -- including a 19-year-old facing up to five years in prison for the Jon-Snow-as-Jesus meme -- has triggered debate about the need to reform hate-speech laws.

LGBT activists, Western governments, and rights watchdogs have also warned of an increasingly repressive atmosphere for sexual minorities in Russia, including a 2013 law signed by President Vladimir Putin that bans "promoting" among minors "nontraditional sexual relations."

'Not A Social Group'

Plyusnina, who first revealed her story to the Yekaterniburg-based news site, says that she decided to file formal complaints in March after local news portals refused to delete homophobic comments -- some involving violent imagery -- posted under articles about LGBT issues.

"We thought, 'This system isn't working.' That's when we went to police in hopes that such comments would be deleted," she tells RFE/RL in a telephone interview.

Anna Plyusnina, a lawyer for the LGBT Resource Center in Yekaterinburg
Anna Plyusnina, a lawyer for the LGBT Resource Center in Yekaterinburg

The complaints eventually landed on the desk of the counterextremism department of the regional Interior Ministry, which last month sent the responses to Plyusnina's three complaints.

One response cites an expert analysis as conceding that the comments feature "rude, profane, insulting" language about gay men and "discuss violent actions against them" -- including one reading, "It's not a sin to thrash gays."

But police concluded that the targets of the abuse are not covered under criminal statutes used to prosecute online speech.

Under Russian law, someone can be sentenced to five years in prison for public actions -- including Internet posts -- aimed at "stoking hatred" or demeaning people based on "gender, race, nationality, language, heritage, attitude toward religion, or affiliation with a social group."

"The police said LGBT individuals are not a social group, and for that reason you can't stoke hatred against them," Plyusnina says.

Aleksandr Verkhovksy, head of the Moscow-based Sova Center, which tracks the use and abuse of antiextremism laws in Russia, tells RFE/RL that it's "typical" for the authorities not to recognize sexual minorities as a "social group" under hate-speech protections.

The lack of a clear definition for the term under Russian law means that "arbitrariness is inevitable," Verkhovsky says. "And prejudice here, of course, plays a role."

Insults And Threats

The Sverdlovsk regional branch of the Interior Ministry, which processed Plyusnina's complaint, did not immediately respond to RFE/RL's request for comment on the matter.

A spokesman for the branch, Valery Gorelykh, told that because the counterextremism department does not have linguistics and psychology experts, it outsourced the analysis of the comments flagged by Plyusnina to experts affiliated with the regional Justice Ministry branch.

In a regular review of Russia's record in May by the UN's Human Rights Council, the United States and numerous European countries expressed concerns about discrimination and violence against sexual minorities in Russia -- including an alleged campaign of torture against gay men in Chechnya.

Putin and the Russian government have repeatedly rejected accusations that it is fostering an atmosphere of hate and discrimination against sexual minorities.

Plyusnina says she and her colleagues have decided not to pursue the homophobic comments with authorities further, noting the recent prominent Russian criminal cases involving alleged hate speech posted online.

"Personally, I don't think we need to put someone in prison over a repost," Plyusnina says. She says the main problem is that websites aren't deleting overtly homophobic comments.

"I'm not sure such comments could really incite someone to commit physical violence against LGBT individuals, but at the very least it contributes to a very negative psychological climate for the LGBT community," she says.

"The insults and threats -- there are more and more of them," Plyusnina adds.

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"Watchdog" is a blog with a singular mission -- to monitor the latest developments concerning human rights, civil society, and press freedom. We'll pay particular attention to reports concerning countries in RFE/RL's broadcast region.


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