Russia: Renewed crackdown on civil society amid invasion of Ukraine

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Photo: Egor Lyfar

Paris-Geneva, March 4, 2022 – Repression against civil society organisations, rights defenders and peaceful protesters has dramatically intensified since Russia invaded Ukraine, according to the Observatory for the Protection of Human Rights Defenders (OMCT-FIDH). Media censorship and large-scale arbitrary arrests of anti-war protesters are among the measures the authorities have implemented to further isolate independent voices denouncing Russia’s illegal war of aggression in Ukraine.

The Russian authorities do not want citizens to know the truth about and oppose the country’s so-called “special operation”. Yet, the few independent voices, organisations and media outlets that remain in the country after a decade of relentless repression insist on calling things by their own name: Russia has waged war on Ukraine.

Since the invasion began on February 24, 2022, there have been daily anti-war protests across the country. As of March 4, 2022, at least 7,692 peaceful protesters had been detained in 121 Russian cities, according to OVD-Info. OVD-Info is an independent human rights media project which has been targeted by the authorities in reprisal for its work documenting violations of the rights to freedom of expression, assembly, the right to be free from arbitrary arrest and other human rights in Russia.

On February 26, 2022, Roskomnadzor, Russia’s media regulator, published a statement ordering media to remove reports describing the attack on Ukraine as an “assault”, “invasion” or a “war”. Should media outlets fail to comply with this order, they will face fines of up to 5 million rubles (approximately 53,200 Euros) and blockages. Roskomnadzor accused several independent media outlets of “spreading unreliable socially significant untrue information” about civilian deaths and the attacks of Russia against Ukrainian cities. The media regulator body further underlined that reliable information could be found in “official Russian information outlets”. That is, State-controlled media.

Hours after the publication of the statement, Prospekt Mira editors reported they were ordered to remove news about the strikes on Ukrainian cities. Access to six online media outlets was blocked on February 28. Roskomnadzor has initiated proceedings against at least ten media outlets, including Radio Echo of Moscow, the popular news site Mediazona, Dozhd TV and the investigative newspaper Novaya Gazeta. As of March 2, 2022, at least 11 journalists had been arbitrarily arrested for their work reporting on the war, including while they were covering anti-war demonstrations. On March 3, 2022, Moscow’s Echo was liquidated. Access to social media networks including Facebook and Twitter has also been restricted, as well as the access to multiple RFE/RL websites, the Russian sites of BBC and Deutsche Welle.

Moreover, on March 4, 2022, a bill criminalising the dissemination of “fake news” about Russian military operations was approved “to prevent the discrediting of the armed forces of the Russian Federation during their operations to protect the interests of the country and its citizens”. The draft law will be added as a separate article to the Criminal Code. Individuals convicted on the charge of “fake news” will face up to three years of imprisonment, up to 10 years if committed in an official capacity, and up to 15 years if the distribution of “fake news” leads to “serious consequences”. Moreover, “making calls against the use of Russian troops to protect the interests of Russia”, “discrediting such use” and “calling for sanctions against Russia” will be penalised with a prison sentence of up to three years.

On the same day the draft law was approved, the offices in Moscow of International Memorial, the Human Rights Center “Memorial” (HRC “Memorial”), two organisations listed as “foreign agents” and liquidated in December 2021 for alleged violation of the “Foreign Agent” Law, were raided by law enforcement officers. The offices of migrants and refugees’ rights organisation Civic Assistance Committee – likewise listed as a “foreign agent under the “Foreign Agent” Law – were also raided. At the time of publication of this statement, the searches were ongoing. The reasons of the raids, as well as the law enforcement body conducting them, remained unknown. The lawyers and legal representatives of the organisations were not allowed into the buildings. Moreover, the doors of HRC “Memorial” were covered with cardboard from inside of the building to prevent journalists, staff members and passers-by to see the searches.

The Observatory for the Protection of Human Rights Defenders (OMCT-FIDH) strongly condemns the increased crackdown on human rights defenders, independent media and civil society organisations and expresses its utmost concern over the blatant violations on the rights to freedom of expression, information and assembly perpetrated by the Russian authorities. The Observatory condemns the arbitrary arrests and judicial harassment against human rights defenders and journalists, as well as the censorship imposed on independent media operating in the country by the Russian media regulator.

The Observatory urges the authorities to put an immediate end to all acts of harassment, including at the judicial level, against all human rights defenders, peaceful protesters, and independent journalists and media outlets. The Observatory further urges the authorities to guarantee, in all circumstances, the rights to freedom of expression, assembly and association, as enshrined in international human right law, and particularly in Articles 19, 21 and 22 of the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights. Finally, the Observatory calls on the authorities to immediately repeal the above-mentioned new bill and to reverse all restrictive measures implemented by Roskomnadzor.

The Observatory for the Protection of Human Rights Defenders (the Observatory) was created in 1997 by FIDH and the World Organisation Against Torture (OMCT). The objective of this programme is to intervene to prevent or remedy situations of repression against human rights defenders. FIDH and OMCT are both members of, the European Union Human Rights Defenders Mechanism implemented by international civil society.

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