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Rights Watchdog Condemns Russia’s ‘Assault’ On Freedom Of Expression

Human Rights Watch says Russia has introduced significant restrictions to online speech, conducts invasive surveillance of online activity, and prosecutes critics under the guise of fighting extremism.

In a report released on July 18, New York-based HRW documents Russian government measures it says are aimed at bringing the Internet under greater state control.

The report, Online And On All Fronts: Russia’s Assault On Freedom Of Speech, says that since 2012 Russian authorities have unjustifiably prosecuted dozens of people for criminal offenses on the basis of their social-media posts, online videos, media articles, and interviews. The authorities have also shut down or blocked access to hundreds of websites.

The report says Moscow’s crackdown on free speech comes as a part of a larger crackdown on civil society unleashed after large antigovernent protests in 2011-2012 and Vladimir Putin’s return to the presidency in May 2012 after a stint as prime minister.

Russia has since introduced a range of repressive laws that provide the government with a broad array of tools to restrict access to information, carry out unchecked surveillance, and censor information the government deems “extremist,” out of line with “traditional values,” or otherwise harmful to the public, the report said.

“Russia’s authorities are leading an assault on free expression,” said Yulia Gorbunova, Russia researcher at HRW. “These laws aren’t just about introducing tough policies, but also about blatant violation of human rights.”

The authorities have increasingly conflated criticism of the government with “extremism,” according to the report, especially on issues such as Russia's seizure of Crimea from Ukraine, criticism or satire targeting the Russian Orthodox Church, and Moscow armed intervention in Syria.

The report says that based on the data provided by the SOVA Center, a prominent Russian think tank, the number of social-media users convicted of extremism offenses in 2015 was 216, in comparison with 30 in 2010.

Between 2014 and 2016, approximately 85 percent of convictions for “extremist expression” dealt with online expression, with punishments ranging from fines or community service to prison time, the HRW report says, citing the SOVA Center.

Between September 2015 and February 2017, 54 people went to prison for “extremist” speech, including online. In February 2017, that number spiked to 94, the report says.

In the occupied Crimea, Russian authorities have silenced dissent, claiming to be “combatting extremism,” the report says. They have closed down all independent media outlets in Crimea and aggressively targeted critics.

HRW says that Russian authorities have also actively enforced a 2013 law that bans dissemination of information about so-called “nontraditional sexual relations,” otherwise known as the antigay “propaganda” law.

According to the report, at least six people have since been found guilty of violating the federal law.

Meanwhile, the enforcement of the 2012 “foreign agents” law has served to discredit and demonize independent nongovernmental groups that accept foreign funding.

HRW said it has interviewed dozens of lawyers, journalists, activists, and bloggers and their family members in preparing its report.

The rights watchdog has also analyzed laws and regulations pertaining to Internet content and freedom of expression, as well as court documents and other material relevant to specific cases.

HRW urged Moscow to repeal what the rights group calls repressive legislation, to stop prosecuting critics under the guise of fighting extremism, and to uphold its international obligations to safeguard free expression.

HRW also calls on the international community, including the European Union, to raise concerns about human rights violations in Russia in all relevant international forums, including at the UN Human Rights Council, the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe, and the Council of Europe, as well as in their bilateral dialogues with the Russian government.

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