Freedom of Expression in Russia by Lucy Popescu

Lucy Popescu

Freedom of Expression in Russia


In December Maria Alekhina and Nadezhda Tolokonnikova (LR, November 2012), members of the Russian punk band Pussy Riot, were released from prison in an amnesty. But as President Vladimir Putin made clear at a press conference:

This is not a revision of the court ruling by any means … The amnesty has nothing to do with Greenpeace or Pussy Riot. It was a decision taken by the Duma. We need to be humane coming to the anniversary of the Russian Constitution. The amnesty was initiated in order to turn the page.

PEN and other human rights organisations believe that the release of Alekhina, Tolokonnikova and other high-profile political prisoners is a ploy intended to distract attention from the protests surrounding Russia’s hosting of the Winter Olympic Games, which will take place in Sochi between 7 and 23 February. In the run-up to and during the games various lobby groups will be highlighting the draconian restrictions placed on free expression in Russia since Putin returned to office in May 2012.

PEN’s ‘Out in the Cold Campaign’ is intended to draw attention to three recently passed laws that are in gross violation of human rights. In July 2012 defamation was recriminalised, despite having been decriminalised in 2011 while Dmitry Medvedev was president. Criminal defamation laws are often exploited by public officials to silence criticism and deter investigative reporting.

In June 2013, the gay ‘propaganda’ law was passed. This law prohibits the ‘propaganda of non-traditional sexual relationships among minors’, meaning that any activity that can be construed as promoting non-heterosexual lifestyles, including lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender (LGBT) rallies, is now banned. Russian citizens violating this law face being fined, foreigners deportation. Since the law was introduced, LGBT groups have reported an increase in attacks on gay people and Russia’s media watchdog has already targeted one newspaper, Molodoi Dalnevostochnik, for ‘promoting’ homosexuality in its coverage of the firing of a gay teacher.

Also in June, the ‘blasphemy’ law was passed. This law criminalises ‘religious insults’ and provides punishment of up to three years’ imprisonment or a maximum fine of around £9,000 for violations. The law is clearly aimed at deterring protests similar to the one carried out by Pussy Riot.

Freedom House has released a report for athletes, journalists, spectators and sponsors of the Olympics, Russia on the Eve of Sochi: Repression of Olympic Proportions, recording ongoing human rights violations through the personal stories of individuals and organisations. These include Sergei Magnitsky, Aleksei Polikhovich and Slava Revin.

Magnitsky, a Russian lawyer, was arrested after attempting to expose government corruption. He died in 2009 at the age of 37 following a year in prison, during which he was mistreated and denied medical care. There was evidence suggesting Magnitsky had been beaten to death. The authorities claimed that he died of heart failure. In July 2013 he was posthumously put on trial for tax evasion.

Aleksei Polikhovich, now 23 years old, joined thousands of protesters in Bolotnaya Square in Moscow on 6 May 2012. The demonstrators believed that Putin and his United Russia Party had engaged in widespread electoral fraud to secure a third term in office. Polikhovich was detained in July of that year and charged with participating in mass disorder and attacking a police officer, based on accusations that he pulled people away while they were being detained and hit a policeman on the hand. The only evidence against him was the testimony of a police officer and a video showing an unknown masked man alleged to be Polikhovich. Although four other protesters were released as part of the recent amnesty, Polikhovich remains in detention and faces up to 13 years in prison if convicted. Two other protesters arrested at the same time were sentenced to several years in prison. A third was sent to a psychiatric institution for forced treatment, a tactic used to punish dissidents during the Soviet era. Polikhovich has appealed to the European Court of Human Rights, claiming that his long pre-trial detention, which has been repeatedly extended, is unlawful.

Slava Revin, an activist, used Twitter to criticise the gay propaganda law. He received an ominous reply from a known homophobic policeman stating, ‘we’ll find him’. Revin fled Russia.

According to the International Press Institute (IPI), Russia is now the sixth-deadliest country in the world for journalists. Attacks on journalists are carried out with impunity and IPI recorded three deaths last year alone. Mikhail Beketov died in April from complications related to a savage beating in 2008, widely believed to be a consequence of his critical reporting of the construction of a highway through a protected forest in Khimki, outside Moscow. In May, Nikolai Potapov, founder and editor of the newspaper Selsovet (‘Village Council’), which exposed alleged corruption by local authorities, was shot dead in the Stavropol region. In July, journalist Akhmednabi Akhmednabiyev, editor and chief political correspondent at Novoye Delo, a weekly newspaper known for reports on alleged corruption in local government, was gunned down in Dagestan.

Readers might like to send appeals to Vladimir Putin, welcoming the amnesty given to Pussy Riot and urging him to repeal the three laws restricting free expression in Russia. Write to:

President Vladimir Putin
23 Ilyinka Street
Moscow, 1031132 


His Excellency Dr Alexander Vladimirovich Yakovenko
Embassy of the Russian Federation
6/7 Kensington Palace Gardens
London W8 4QP
Fax: +44 (0) 20 7727 8625

Tweet PEN’s protest: #Russia! Respect the right to write! Repeal laws restricting free expression.

Please use the hashtags #Outinthecold and #sochi2014 and copy in President Putin @PutinRF_Eng and @pen_int

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