While the constitution provides for freedom of speech and press, the government increasingly restricted those rights. The government instituted several new laws that restrict both freedom of speech and press. Regional and local authorities used procedural violations and restrictive or vague legislation to detain, harass, or prosecute persons who criticized the government. The government exercised greater editorial control over state-controlled media than it had previously, creating a media landscape in which most citizens were exposed to predominantly government-approved narratives. Significant government pressure on independent media constrained coverage of numerous problems, especially the situation in Ukraine and Syria, LGBTI problems, the environment, elections, criticism of local or federal leadership, as well as issues of secessionism or federalism. Self-censorship in television and print media was increasingly widespread, particularly on points of view critical of the government or its policies. The government used direct ownership or ownership by large private companies with government links to control or influence major national media and regional media outlets, especially television.
Freedom of Speech and Expression: Government-controlled media frequently used terms such as “traitor,” “foreign agent,” and “fifth column” to describe individuals expressing views critical of or different from government policy, leading to a climate intolerant of dissent. Authorities also invoked a law prohibiting the “propaganda” of nontraditional sexual relations to minors to restrict the free speech of LGBTI persons and their supporters (see section 6).
Authorities continued to misuse the country’s expansive definition of extremism as a tool to stifle dissent. As of November 9, the Ministry of Justice expanded its list of extremist materials to include 3,897 books, videos, websites, social media pages, musical compositions, and other items, an increase of nearly 800 items from 2015. According to the Investigative Committee, detectives referred more than 500 extremism cases to prosecutors in 2015, a number of which included charges of “extremism” levied against individuals for exercising free speech on social media and elsewhere.
In July 2015 journalist Alexander Sokolov of the independent news company RBK was arrested on a charge of participating in the activities of the People’s Will Army, which was declared an extremist organization by the Moscow City Court. Sokolov maintained he was simply providing professional services to the group, such as registering its website. Sokolov had previously reported on state corruption and embezzlement connected with the construction of the Vostochnyy space center. In November 2015 the Memorial Human Rights Center recognized Sokolov as a political prisoner, demanding that the court drop its prosecution. In June, Human Rights Ombudswoman Tatyana Moskalkova appealed to the prosecutor general, requesting verification of the lawfulness and legality of the decisions taken in the case against Sokolov. On August 1, Reporters without Borders requested that authorities immediately release Sokolov. He remained in prison.
Several persons, including minors in some instances, were charged with extremism under the criminal code for comments and images posted in online forums. In April, Yekaterina Vologzheninova, a single mother working as a cashier in the central Russian city of Yekaterinburg, was charged after she shared links online critical of the country’s role in the Ukraine conflict. She was subsequently sentenced to 320 hours of “corrective labor.” According to the indictment, Vologzheninova shared and liked posts deemed “insulting and degrading to Russian people.”
By law authorities may close any organization that a court determines to be extremist, including media outlets and websites. Roskomnadzor, Russia’s media oversight agency, routinely issued warnings to newspapers and internet sources suspected of publishing extremist materials. Three warnings in one year were enough to initiate a closure lawsuit.
Press and Media Freedoms: The government increasingly restricted press freedom. As of 2015, the latest year for which data was available, the government and state-owned or state-controlled companies directly owned more than 60 percent of the country’s 45,000 registered local newspapers and periodicals. The federal or local governments or progovernment individuals completely or partially owned approximately 66 percent of the 2,500 television stations, including all six national channels. Government-owned media outlets often received preferential benefits, such as rent-free occupancy of government-owned buildings. At many government-owned or controlled outlets, the state increasingly dictated editorial policy. A 2014 law, effective in January, restricts foreign ownership of media outlets to no more than 20 percent.
In May the owner of RBK, Mikhail Prokhorov, who was widely seen as under pressure from the government, fired the chief editors of RBK’s newspaper, television channel, and web portal. Following several of RBK’s high-profile investigations into corruption on the part of President Putin, his family, and alleged business associates, culminating in reporting on the “Panama Papers” scandal in April, the government allegedly demanded changes in the holding company’s editorial policies. The editors in chief were replaced by new personnel from the state-owned TASS news agency. The new editors instructed staff that there would now be a “double line” editorial policy--a line that cannot be crossed--concerning certain types of topics, according to a transcript of an RBK staff meeting published by the newspaper Meduza and a source cited in Reuters.
In April the FSB raided the Prokhorov-owned ONEXIM Group’s Moscow premises on suspicion of tax evasion. According to a number of analysts, the raids resulted from the government’s displeasure with RBK’s extended coverage of the Panama Papers leak of documents that detailed how private individuals and public officials used offshore accounts to conceal financial activity, at least some of questionable legality. The Ministry of Internal Affairs also opened a criminal case against RBK on suspicion of alleged fraud.
In July, Svetlana Bababeva, the chief editor of Gazeta.ru, one of the most widely read independent digital media sites in the country, was abruptly fired without explanation when her contract expired. Press reports subsequently indicated that the leadership of Rambler & Co, the media-holding firm that owns Gazeta.ru, faced government pressure to terminate Bababeva because of her opposition to the government and its policies.
Many newspapers ensured their financial viability by agreeing to various types of “support contracts” with government ministries, under which they agreed to provide positive coverage of government officials and policies in news stories. Absent direct government support, independent news publications reported difficulty attracting advertising and securing financial viability, since advertisers feared retaliation if their brands became linked to publications that criticized the government.
Violence and Harassment: Journalists continued to be subjected to arrest, imprisonment, physical attack, harassment, and intimidation as a result of their reporting. The Glasnost Defense Fund reported numerous actions against journalists in 2014, including five killings, 52 attacks, 107 detentions by law enforcement officers, 200 prosecutions, 29 threats against journalists, 15 politically motivated firings, and two attacks on media offices.
On July 12, the Federal Financial Monitoring Service, tasked with monitoring legal entities’ and individuals’ compliance with the country’s terrorist and extremist financing laws, published a list of some 6,000 individuals on its website that included Crimean journalists Nikolay Semena and Anna Andriyevskaya from the Center for Journalistic Investigations. OSCE media freedom representative Dunja Mijatovic expressed concern over the government’s placing of journalists on a list of alleged terrorists and extremists.
In September a criminal court in Chechnya’s Shali District convicted Caucasian Knot journalist Zhalaudi Geriyev of drug possession for personal use and sentenced him to three years in prison. The defense maintained that the prosecutor’s case was marred by inconsistencies and flawed evidence as well as by violations of the criminal procedure code. Although Geriyev had signed a confession while in custody, he completely recanted during the trial, claiming he signed the confession under duress. Caucasian Knot published a statement stating it believed the criminal case against Geriyev was fabricated and calling accusations of his drug use “completely far-fetched.” The statement continued that the “absence of direct evidence” and the pressure placed on Geriyev suggested that the prosecution was “connected with his professional activities.”
Journalists reporting in or on the North Caucasus remained particularly vulnerable to physical attacks for their reporting. Rumors also persisted of an alleged “hit list” that included prominent journalists such as Aleksey Venediktov, chief of the independent radio and news organization Ekho Moskvy.
There was no progress during the year in establishing accountability in a number of high-profile killings of journalists, including the 2004 killing of Paul Klebnikov, the 2006 killing of Anna Politkovskaya, or the 2009 killing of Natalia Estemirova.
Journalists and bloggers who uncovered various forms of government malfeasance also faced harassment, either in the form of direct threats to their physical safety or threats to their security or livelihood, often through legal prosecution. In March journalists on a reporting tour organized by the Committee for the Prevention of Torture were stopped and beaten by a group of masked assailants as they traveled from Ingushetia to Chechnya. No one was prosecuted for the attack (see section 1.c.).
Censorship or Content Restrictions: The government continued to use laws and decrees to censor or restrict media content.
On January 23, political analyst Andrey Piontkovskiy posted an article to the Ekho Moskvy website entitled “A Bomb Ready to Explode” which implied that federal authorities had “lost the war for Chechnya” and suggested federal authorities were complicit in acts of corruption by Chechnya’s leaders. The final two paragraphs of the article suggested that authorities allow Chechnya to secede from the Russian Federation and were removed from the text shortly after the article was uploaded. The State Duma called for the prosecution of Ekho Moskvy over the article, and the FSB began an investigation of the station for incitement to violate the territorial integrity of the Russian Federation. The FSB conducted searches at Ekho Moskvy’s editorial office, where they seized Piontkovsky’s correspondence. A number of Ekho Moskvy employees were also summoned for questioning. A criminal case was opened against Piontkovskiy, who subsequently left the country.
According to the Glasnost Defense Fund and other NGOs, authorities used media’s widespread dependence on the government for access to property, printing, and distribution services to discourage critical reporting. Approximately 90 percent of print media relied on state-controlled entities for paper, printing, and distribution services, and many television stations relied on the government for access to the airwaves and office space. Officials continued to manipulate the price of printing at state-controlled publishing houses to pressure private media rivals.
Libel/Slander Laws: Officials at all levels used their authority, sometimes publicly, to restrict the work of journalists and bloggers who criticized them, including taking legal action for alleged slander or libel.
National Security: The law places limits on free expression on national security grounds, notably in statutes against extremism and treason (see Freedom of Speech and Expression).
The government utilized antiextremism laws to censor an array of online content (see Internet Freedom, below).
The government took significant new steps to restrict free expression on the internet. Threats to internet freedom included: physical attacks on bloggers; politically motivated prosecutions of bloggers for “extremism,” libel, or other crimes; blocking of specific sites by national and local service providers; distributed denial-of-service attacks on sites of opposition groups or independent media, including to independent pollster Levada Center less than two weeks before State Duma elections; monitoring by authorities of all internet communications; and attempts by national, local, and regional authorities to regulate and criminalize content. The internet was widely available to citizens in all parts of the country, although connection speeds varied by region. According to data compiled by the International Telecommunication Union, approximately 73 percent of the country’s population used the internet in 2015.
A report issued by the legal services NGO AGORA stated that the number of cases in which authorities infringed the rights of internet users increased in 2015, from 2,951 cases to 15,022. The report attributed the surge in cases in part to improved reporting and noted that the number of requests to block, edit, or remove information also increased significantly. Such types of administrative pressure accounted for 11,800 of the reported cases, and occurred in Russian-occupied Crimea as well as in a number of regions of Russia. The number of regions in Russia in which internet users were subjected to serious pressure increased more than twofold to 30 regions.
New laws place additional restrictions on internet freedom. On June 24, President Putin signed into law amendments to the Federal Law on Information, Information Technologies, and Protection of Information and to the administrative code requiring owners of internet search engines (“news aggregators”) with more than one million daily users to be accountable for the truthfulness of “publicly important” information before its dissemination. Authorities can demand that content deemed in violation be removed, and they can also impose heavy fines for noncompliance. Dunja Mijatovic, the OSCE special representative on freedom of the media, raised concerns that the law “could result in governmental interference of online information and introduce self-censorship in private companies.” The law’s provisions enter into force on January 1, 2017.
In September 2015 the country’s data on-shoring law went into effect, requiring domestic and foreign businesses to store citizens’ personal data on servers located in the country. Critics expressed concern that the law might have negative commercial effects and provide the government with further access to citizens’ private information. On November 17, Roskomnadzor, Russia’s communications authority, announced that it would block the U.S.-based professional networking website LinkedIn for failure to comply with the law. LinkedIn was the first social networking site targeted under the new law.
On January 1, the country’s “right to be forgotten” law entered into force, allowing individuals in the country to block search engine companies from showing search results that contain information about them. Figures with ties to the regime made several attempts to use the law to stifle reporting about their business and political activities. In June the Kuibyshev district court of St. Petersburg began hearings on claims of St. Petersburg billionaire Evgeniy Prigogine against the Yandex search engine. The applicant sought to remove from search engine results links to the website of the NGO Fund to Fight Corruption that contained reporting on Ministry of Defense contracts awarded to Prigogine’s companies. Another target was the Fontanka news site, which covered the entrepreneur’s funding of an internet “trolling factory” that posted progovernment comments on a paid basis. By August, out of 11 such claims against Yandex, none had been upheld by the courts. In four instances, decisions were favorable to Yandex, in two the plaintiffs dropped their claims, and in two others, the cases were dismissed without hearing.
In August the public organization Roskomsvoboda filed a lawsuit against Google in the Moscow Arbitration Court to require that pages containing reference materials hosted on the website of the SOVA Center be restored in search engine results. These pages had earlier been removed from search results in accordance with provisions of the “right to be forgotten” law. The deleted pages contained reports on two trials related to incitement of hatred. The plaintiffs’ representatives asserted that citizens have the right to know that such crimes were committed, who committed them, and where they were committed and that the decision (to remove the material) infringes on the provision in the constitution providing for free flow of information.
Roskomnadzor maintained a federal blacklist of internet sites and required internet service providers (ISPs) to block access to web pages that the agency deemed offensive or illegal, including information that was already prohibited, such as items on the Federal List of Extremist Materials. The law gives the prosecutor general and Roskomnadzor authority to demand that ISPs block websites that promote extremist information or “mass public events that are conducted in violation of appropriate procedures.” Roskomsvoboda reported that its registry included more than 25,000 sites as of April and estimated that almost 600,000 sites were blocked within the country. Sites other than those officially blacklisted often ended up themselves blocked when they shares the same internet address as a blocked site.
Cell phone service providers cooperated with government security agencies’ surveillance of telephone users. In May political activists Oleg Kozlovskiy and Gregoriy Alburov threatened to sue mobile operator MTS for abetting the hacking of their Telegram accounts, an encrypted messaging service popular among activists for its security features. According to Kozlovskiy and Alburov, on April 29, MTS temporarily disabled text messaging services on their phones, allowing a third party trying to hack their accounts to intercept log-in codes sent via text messaging from Telegram.
On July 7, the State Duma passed the “Yarovaya package” of security-related amendments to the law that require telecommunications providers to provide authorities with “backdoors” around encryption technologies used by apps like WhatsApp, Viber, and Telegram. Providers face fines of one million rubles ($15,000) for noncompliance. Later that month President Putin ordered the FSB to produce encryption keys to decrypt all data on the internet. In the beginning of August, the FSB announced that it finally had the capabilities to collect encryption keys from internet companies that could decrypt unreadable data on the internet. The statement met with skepticism in the professional community; due to the nature of encryption key technology, many considered this not feasible.
During the year authorities blocked or threatened to block some websites and social network pages that either criticized government policy or violated laws on internet content. On May 11, users in occupied Crimea and several Russian regions reported that Krym.Realii, the Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty website dedicated to covering events in occupied Crimea, was no longer accessible. In August, after the government alleged Ukrainian “incursions” into the Crimean peninsula, authorities disconnected internet access in the northern part of Crimea, allegedly for security reasons.
During the year authorities prosecuted individual bloggers for alleged extremist content they published online, including the content of other users’ comments on their pages. On August 11, a court refused to grant early release on parole to Darya Polyudova, who was sentenced in December 2015 to two years’ imprisonment for inciting separatism and extremist activities. The charges derived from three posts related to Ukraine on her VKontakte page that criticized the government for supporting separatists in eastern Ukraine. In February the Investigative Committee opened a case against the prominent blogger Anton Nosik for inciting hatred and humiliation of human dignity. The charges stemmed from a November 2015 post on Nosik’s LiveJournal blog, titled “Wipe Syria off the Face of the Earth,” in which he compared the Assad regime in Syria to the Nazis. Nosik refused to take down the post, asserting that his words did not constitute extremism. His trial remained underway, and he faced four years in prison if convicted. The newspaper Kommersant reported that Luzgin faced criminal prosecution under a highly controversial law signed by President Putin in 2014 that imposes penalties ranging from fines to five years’ imprisonment for the “rehabilitation of Nazism.”
There were multiple reports that authorities fined libraries, schools, and internet clubs during the year for failing to block content listed on the Federal List of Extremist Materials or covered under the law “protecting” children from harmful information. The SOVA Center described 27 cases of sanctions directed at the management of educational facilities for various content filtration-related failures from January to August.
The government continued to employ a “system for operational investigative measures,” which requires ISPs to install, at their own expense, a device that routes all customer traffic to an FSB terminal. The system enabled police to track private e-mail communications, identify internet users, and monitor their internet activity.
Academic Freedom and Cultural Events
There were indications that the government took new steps during the year to restrict academic and cultural freedom.
Authorities often censored or shut down cultural events or displays that they considered offensive or that expressed views in opposition to the government and in some cases initiated criminal proceedings against organizers. On June 10, a museum dedicated to the newly controversial subject of American and Soviet cooperation in World War II was closed under pressure from administrators of the government school in which it had been located for 12 years. The museum director stated he was offered a lease that would have allowed him to rent space at the school, but the rent was set at an exorbitant rate because administrators knew he had no way of paying. The director subsequently created a mobile version of the museum to travel to different cities in the country.
Those expressing views of historical events that run counter to officially accepted narratives faced harassment. During an annual student essay competition on 20th century Russian history held by the Memorial Human Rights Center in April, progovernment protesters attacked participants, including students and teachers, throwing eggs and green fast-dye antiseptic liquid at them. The protesters yelled “national traitors” at the participants. Prominent Russian novelist Lyudmila Ulitskaya, who chaired the competition’s jury, was among those attacked. Some assailants wore World War II-era uniforms, and the group hoisted a replica Soviet Victory flag and held placards reading, “We don’t need alternative history.”