Online censorship to worsen, say experts

posted 5 May 2014, 04:22 by Rights in Russia   [ updated 5 May 2014, 04:24 ]
30 April 2014

Source: (info)
New repressive measures by the Russian government in 2013, some of which affect internet use, constitute serious cause for concern that there will be a crackdown on internet use this year, say specialists from Sova Centre in a recent report on the abuse of anti-extremist legislation. Analysts believe that censorship of online content is already taking place in Russia.

In a report released on Tuesday, the Sova Centre for Information and Analysis revealed that the Russian authorities, fearing a new rise in the opposition movement, adopted seven new laws in 2013 with the stated purpose of counteracting terrorism, extremism and incitement of hatred. However, these laws are often used - or could be used - as a means to repress any forms of dissent.

'All this creates serious grounds for concern that there will be a significant increase in the use of legislation for repressive purposes in 2014,' Sova reports, 'especially if we take into account tensions currently felt at the international level and the controversy this has caused in Russia. For us it is evident that the tightening of legislation and the broadening of powers of government bodies will inevitably lead to an increase in abuses in the application of anti-extremism laws.’

Analysts gave examples of government abuse of legislation in 2013, but emphasised that the number of criminal cases based on anti-extremist law has fallen since 2012.

Targeting blogs

In 2013 Russia adopted a potentially repressive law giving authorities the right to block websites that 'incite extremist activity' without a court decision, including those advertising unauthorised protests. Three oppositionist sites have already been blocked under this pretext, as well as a blog by Aleksei Navalny.

In the sphere of religion, the notorious law prohibiting any action which 'offends believers', prompted by the Pussy Riot scandal, was brought into force in July.

However, as director of Sova Aleksandr Verkhovsky pointed out in his presentation of the report, not a single judgment has resulted from this law (in fact, amendments to the Criminal Code), nor is there likely to be in the near future.

'It seems it is not only us who don’t understand how this law can be applied. Nearly a year later and not a single conviction... All this makes you wonder what motivated the people who adopted the law,' he said, adding that another law criminalising the rehabilitation of Nazism, adopted very recently by the State Duma, also serves as grounds for similar reflections.

Another potentially repressive law relating to religion, signed into force by the President at the beginning of July, prohibits anybody found guilty of extremism or suspected of terrorism both from leading a religious organization or even belonging to one. As Verkhovsky points out, the law is unclear on what constitutes 'participation in a religious group': if somebody goes to pray at a church or mosque, does this make them a 'participatant’ in an this ‘organization’?

Fewer convictions

Introducing statistics on anti-extremist verdicts considered unjust by Sova, the author of the report, Maria Kravchenko, conceded that the number of such verdicts has not increased since 2012, and that the number of individuals convicted in this way has in fact halved.

Over the one-year period Sova found six accounts of unjust verdicts under the much-criticized Article 282 of the Russian Criminal Code (Incitement to hatred or dissent or abasement of human dignity) and six convictions.

One such example given by Maria Kravchenko was the case of Konstantin Krylov, leader of the unregistered National-Democratic Party, who was sentenced to compulsory community service for a speech he gave at a 'Stop Feeding the Caucasus' rally.

'The speech was indeed offensive,' said Kravchenko, 'but we do not consider there to have been sufficient grounds for a criminal sentence.'

At the moment, according to analysts, the Russian authorities are paying particular attention to the internet.

'It seems as though the online community is increasingly becoming the focus of anti-extremist law,' said Kravchenko. According to her calculations, the number of ‘anti-extremist’ verdicts relating to online material tripled in 2013. Sova analysts considered 131 of these verdicts to be lawful (with some reservations), but found three more verdicts and nine on-going cases to be unjust.

Already just like China

The experts have observed other types of measure being taken by the authorities, including the removal of websites, and sites or online material being ‘blacklisted’ by Roskomnadzor (the Federal Agency for Supervision in the Sphere of Telecom, Information Technologies and Mass Communications).

‘We saw internet censorship for the first time in 2013,’ said, Andrei Soldatov, chief editor of the website

According to Soldatov, blacklists for websites and online content were initially justified by the authorities by the necessity to protect children from pornography, drugs or suicide propaganda. Soldatov can now name at least four different government-created blacklists which do not only target child pornography sites.

‘The State has now gained a foothold online, and has begun to use this power for many different purposes,’ he says. In his view, the current situation is already very similar to that in China, and if we take into account the measures currently being discussed, it could end up being exactly the same.

‘We can say with absolute certainty that Russia is going in the same direction as China when it comes to regulating and controlling the internet,’ says Soldatov with reference to legislative initiatives which, according to newspaper Kommersant, are being put together by the Presidential working group.

Source: Yury Maloveryan, BBC Russian Service

Translated by Catriona Gillham