While the constitution provides for freedom of expression, including for the press, the government increasingly restricted those rights. The government instituted several new laws restricting both freedom of expression and of the press, particularly in regards to online expression. 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 editorial control over media, 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 problems of secessionism or federalism. Censorship and self-censorship in television and print media, and on the internet was increasingly widespread, particularly regarding 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 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 continued to misuse the country’s expansive definition of extremism as a tool to stifle dissent. As of November 13, the Ministry of Justice expanded its list of extremist materials to include 4,294 books, videos, websites, social media pages, musical compositions, and other items, an increase of nearly 300 items from 2016. 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. According to the SOVA Center, as of August courts issued eight inappropriate verdicts against 27 individuals for participating in activities of an organization declared extremist and issued seven inappropriate verdicts against seven persons for inciting hatred.
On August 11, the Tverskoy District Court of Moscow found journalist Aleksandr Sokolov of the independent news company RBK guilty and sentenced him to three and one-half years in a penal colony on charges of organizing an extremist group and attempting to overthrow the government. Authorities arrested Sokolov in 2015 on a charge of participating in the activities of the People’s Will Army, which the Moscow City Court declared an extremist organization. Sokolov maintained he simply provided professional services to the group, such as registering its website. Sokolov had previously reported on state corruption and embezzlement in connection with the construction of the Vostochnyy space center. In 2015 the Memorial Human Rights Center recognized Sokolov as a political prisoner and called for the court to drop its prosecution of him.
Several persons, including in some instances minors, were charged with extremism under the criminal code for comments and images posted in online forums. On March 16, a municipal court in Chebaksary fined Dmitriy Semyonov 1,000 rubles ($17) for “distributing extremist materials” by posting information about his 2014 conviction for “distributing extremist materials.” The first case began in 2013 when Semyonov posted a photograph on VKontakte (a social media platform) of former St. Petersburg lawmaker Vitaliy Milonov wearing a shirt with an Orthodox slogan that authorities ruled extremist.
On August 17, the Vyborg City Court ruled that a Jehovah’s Witness publication, the New World Translation of the Holy Scriptures, a translation of the Bible, and three Jehovah’s Witness brochures were extremist. The court relied on the findings of an “expert panel” that determined the book was not a Bible. The case against the publication dated to 2015, when customs officials stopped and impounded a shipment of the books from Finland at the border on suspicion of extremism. On December 20, the Leningrad Regional Court upheld the ruling. On April 20, the Supreme Court banned the Jehovah’s Witnesses as an extremist organization (see section 2.c.).
By law, authorities may close any organization that a court determines to be extremist, including media outlets and websites. Roskomnadzor, the country’s media oversight agency, routinely issued warnings to newspapers and internet sources suspected of publishing extremist materials. Three warnings in one year sufficed to initiate a closure lawsuit.
During the year authorities invoked a 2013 law prohibiting the “propaganda” of nontraditional sexual relations to minors to restrict the free speech of LGBTI persons and their supporters. On July 26, authorities charged LGBTI activist Evdokia Romanova of Samara under the law. According to Human Rights Watch, Romanova was accused of sharing information on Facebook in 2015 and 2016 about the Youth Coalition for Sexual and Reproductive Rights, an international group that advocates for young persons’ access to accurate information about health and sexuality. On October 18, a Samara court convicted Romanova and fined her 50,000 rubles ($857), making her the seventh LGBTI activist convicted under the “propaganda” law.
During the year authorities prosecuted individuals for speech allegedly violating a 2013 law that prohibits “offending the feelings of religious believers.” In one such case, on August 2, a Sochi court fined Viktor Nochevnov 50,000 rubles ($857) for posting satirical images of Jesus Christ on his social media pages.
During the year authorities prosecuted individuals for speech that allegedly violated a 2013 law prohibiting the “rehabilitation of Nazism.” In June a Trans-Baikal regional court convicted a 36-year-old citizen of Krasnokamensk for justification of Nazism. On his personal page in social networks the man posted comments justifying the Holocaust, Nazism, and Hitler. He received two years’ imprisonment with a probation period of two years, as well as a fine of 350,000 rubles ($6,000).
The law bans the display of Nazi symbols and the symbols of groups placed on the government’s list of “extremist” organizations. There was no official register or list of banned symbols.
Press and Media Freedom: The government continued to restrict 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. Most other outlets were owned by government-friendly oligarchs. The federal government or progovernment individuals completely or partially owned all of the so-called federal television channels, the only stations with nationwide reach. The 29 most watched stations together commanded 86 percent of television viewership; all were owned at least in part by the federal or local governments or by progovernment individuals. 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. In January 2016 a law came into effect that restricts foreign ownership of media outlets to no more than 20 percent. Another provision of the ambiguously worded law seemingly bans foreign ownership entirely. The government used these provisions to consolidate ownership of independent outlets under progovernment oligarchs and to exert pressure on outlets that still retained foreign backers. In its annual report on freedom of the press, Freedom House rated the country “not free.”
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 such actions against journalists. As of September incidents of violence and harassment included three killings, 40 attacks, 82 detentions by law enforcement officers, 14 prosecutions, 42 threats against journalists, 21 politically motivated firings, and one attack on media offices. Journalists and bloggers who uncovered various forms of government malfeasance or who expressed criticism of the government often faced harassment, either in the form of direct threats to their physical safety or threats to their security or livelihood, frequently through legal prosecution.
On March 9 in St. Petersburg, unknown assailants severely beat journalist Nikolay Andrushchenko. He was found several hours later and placed in a medically induced coma. He never regained consciousness and died on April 20. Andrushchenko had been subjected to two prior attacks, in 2007 and 2016. Independent reporting connected the attacks to Andrushchenko’s investigations into local government corruption and links between St. Petersburg city officials and organized crime networks. Authorities opened an investigation but did not identify any suspects as of year’s end. Andrushchenko’s colleagues expressed doubts about the rigor and objectivity of the investigation.
On October 23, an assailant broke into the studios of the independent radio station Ekho Moskvy and stabbed journalist Tat’yana Felgengauer in the neck with a knife. Authorities detained the assailant; a government newspaper reported that investigators believed the assailant to be psychologically unstable and saw no other motivation for the attack, although state television directly linked his alleged psychosis to his extensive listening to Echo Moskvy. Weeks earlier Felgengauer had been targeted in a series of reports on a state-run news channel alleging she took money from a foreign government to train bloggers and citizen journalists opposed to the government.
On September 9, independent journalist Yuliya Latynina announced she had left the country after suffering a string of attacks. On September 3, unknown individuals set fire to her car. On July 20, unknown individuals sprayed an unidentified noxious-smelling poisonous substance through the windows of her home in the suburbs of Moscow, sickening her and her family members. In August 2016 an unknown attacker threw feces at her as she left the radio station where she worked. Authorities opened investigations into the attacks, but no arrests were made as of year’s end.
Journalists reporting on the North Caucasus remained particularly vulnerable to physical attacks or prosecution for their reporting. Following their expose on the large-scale violations of human rights against gay men in Chechnya, Chechen officials made threats against the independent newspaper Novaya Gazeta, which first broke the story. At an April 3 gathering of some 15,000 men at a mosque, Chechen presidential adviser Adam Shahidov called Novaya Gazeta journalists “enemies of our faith and our motherland” and threatened “vengeance.” A resolution adopted at the gathering included a promise that “retribution will catch up with the hatemongers wherever and whoever they are, without a statute of limitations,” which Novaya Gazeta believed to constitute a call to violence against its journalists. On April 15, Novaya Gazeta journalist Elena Milashina announced that the she had left the country following threats against her life. On April 19, Novaya Gazeta reported that it received an envelope mailed from Chechnya containing an unidentified white powder.
In April a Chechen court upheld the 2016 conviction in Chechnya of Caucasian Knot journalist Zhalaudi Geriyev on drug possession charges, which resulted in a three-year prison sentence. In July the Supreme Court refused to consider the case. Human rights groups maintained the verdict was politically motivated and in direct retaliation for Geriyev’s independent reporting on Chechnya.
There was no progress during the year in establishing accountability in a number of high-profile killings of journalists, including the 2006 killing of Anna Politkovskaya and the 2009 killing of Natalia Estemirova. In November, Ukrainian authorities arrested Magomed Dukuzov, the chief suspect in the, 2004 killing of Forbes Russia editor Paul Klebnikov, reportedly at the request of authorities. Klebnikov’s relatives emphasized that authorities still have never adequately investigated and identified the person who ordered the killing.
Censorship or Content Restrictions: Self-censorship in independent media was reportedly widespread. For example, on June 24, journalist Ilya Rozhdestvenskiy announced his resignation from the RBC news outlet because it refused to publish his investigative report about the existence of an FSB secret prison near Moscow where torture was reportedly used against detainees. Rozhdestvenskiy reported his editors rejected the article six times, claiming that it was in the incorrect format. A different newspaper subsequently published the article.
On November 25, the government approved legislation expanding the scope of the Foreign Agent Law to include media organizations that receive funding from foreign sources. The amendments will potentially restrict designated organizations’ ability to operate freely in Russia. On December 4, the Voice of America, Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty, and seven of their affiliate media organizations received notices from the Ministry of Justice requiring that they register as “foreign agents.” On December 6, the State Duma (the lower house of Russia’s parliament) banned reporters credentialed by media organizations registered as foreign agents from its premises.
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. In one such case, on June 26, a Kursk court fined local journalist and opposition legislator Olga Li 90,000 rubles ($1,540) for allegedly defaming a local judge. The charges stemmed from a series of online videos in which Li criticized national and local politicians belonging to the United Russia party.
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 and social media users for “extremism,” separatism, treason, 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 on the site of the 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 dramatically in 2016, from 15,022 cases in 2015 to 116,103. The majority of cases (111,498) involved content filtering and blocking in one form or another. The report attributed some of the surge in cases to improved data published by Roskomnadzor, the country’s communications authority, but reported a substantial increase in pressure on internet freedom overall. The number of regions in the country in which internet users were subjected to serious pressure remained at 30 in 2016. The report stated that 82 million residents lived in areas where internet users faced severe pressure.
A law passed in July requires that commercial virtual private network (VPN) services and internet anonymizers block access to websites and internet content prohibited in Russia. Under the law Roskomnadzor can block sites that provide instructions on how to circumvent government blocking. The law also authorizes law enforcement agencies including the Ministry of Internal Affairs and the FSB to identify VPN services that do not comply with the subsequent ban by Roskomnadzor. When the law came into force on November 1, Roskomnadzor announced that the majority of commercial VPNs and anonymizers used in Russia had registered and intended to comply with the law, although most foreign-based VPNs had not. As of mid-December, there were no reports Roskomnadzor blocked specific VPN services.
Another law passed in July prohibits companies registered as “organizers of information dissemination,” including online messaging applications, from allowing unidentified users. Messaging applications and platforms that fail to comply with the requirements to restrict anonymous accounts can be blocked. The law was scheduled to come into force in January 2018.
On August 11, according to press reports, the communications ministry published a draft order outlining the kinds of user data “organizers of information dissemination” will have to share with the FSB. Beginning in July 2018, the law will require these companies to store and provide to the FSB in-depth user information, including user name; full real name; date of birth; exact address; internal passport number; lists of relatives, friends, contacts, all foreign languages spoken; date and time of account’s creation; date and time of all communications; full text of all communications; full archives of all audio and video communications; all shared files; records of all e-payments; location for use of each service; IP address; telephone number; email address; and software used.
Human rights activists and NGOs widely criticized both laws. Human Rights Watch noted that journalists, human rights activists, students, and others often use VPNs to protect the privacy and security of their online activity as well as to circumvent internet censorship. On August 11, the social media application Snapchat registered as an “organizer of information dissemination.” A spokesperson for the company stated it did not know whether information provided to Roskomnadzor would be used for the law’s purpose. On May 4, Roskomnadzor blocked the Chinese messaging application WeChat for not complying with its registration request. On April 10, Roskomnadzor blocked the mobile push-to-talk messaging application Zello, frequently used by truck drivers and first responders, on the grounds that it failed to register as an “organizer of information dissemination.” A group of long-haul truckers had used Zello to organize a strike.
On January 1, amendments to the Federal Law on Information, Information Technologies, and Protection of Information and to the administrative code came into force 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 special representative on freedom of the media of the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE), raised concerns the law “could result in governmental interference of online information and introduce self-censorship in private companies.”
In June 2016 the Ministry of Telecommunications and Mass Communications published amendments to the Information Society State Program, drafted by order of the Security Council, according to which domestic networks must handle 99 percent of internet traffic by 2020.
The law requires domestic and foreign businesses to store citizens’ personal data on servers located in the country. Critics expressed concern the law would have negative commercial effects and provide the government with further access to citizens’ private information. In November 2016 Roskomnadzor blocked the U.S.-based professional networking website LinkedIn for failure to comply with the law, the first social networking site targeted under the law. On March 7, Roskomnadzor released a statement confirming LinkedIn would remain blocked.
In April, Roskomnadzor blocked three online messaging applications: BlackBerry Messenger, LINE, and Imo.im, as well as the video chat application Vchat, for failing to share data about their users with authorities. A law on the “right to be forgotten” allows individuals in the country to block search engine companies from showing search results that contain information about them.
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.” The NGO Roskomsvoboda reported that, as of October, more than four million domains were blocked without a legitimate basis. On December 12, Roskomnadzor blocked the website of the opposition movement “Open Russia” along with several related sites including “Open Elections,” “Open University,” and khodorkovsky.ru, the website of Mikhail Khodorkovsky, the exiled former oligarch who founded Open Russia, on the grounds that they were “undesirable foreign organizations.” On December 14, Roskomnadzor threatened to block Twitter.com in Russia if it did not block Open Russia’s twitter feed.
In 2016 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 applications such as WhatsApp, Viber, and Telegram. Providers face fines of one million rubles ($17,140) for noncompliance.
In August 2016 the FSB announced it had the capability to collect encryption keys from internet companies that could decrypt unreadable data on the internet. Although many experts doubted it was possible to decrypt all forms of encryption, particularly end-to-end encryption, it was believed that the country’s security services were able to intercept messages on at least some messaging platforms. On October 16, the Meshchanskiy District Court of Moscow fined Telegram 800,000 rubles ($13,715) for refusing to pass to the FSB keys for decoding user messages. According to the case file, on July 12, the FSB sent a request to Telegram’s office, giving the company until July 16 to provide information on six telephone numbers. As of December the case was still being litigated.
In August the communications ministry published a draft order outlining the kinds of user data that would be collected by the security services from “organizers of information dissemination” as part of implementation of the 2016 Yarovaya Law. Beginning in July 2018, the law requires companies to store in-depth user information that could be collected by the FSB through the System of Operative Investigative Measures (SORM) equipment that the law requires to be connected to the data storage servers.
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 April 2, the Prosecutor General’s Office requested that Roskomnadzor block five websites that were calling for participation in protests the government considered “unsanctioned.”
During the year authorities prosecuted individual bloggers for alleged illegal content published online, including other users’ comments on their pages. According to media reports, on July 21, authorities in Kurgansk Oblast opened an administrative case against 14-year-old Dmitry Morozov for displaying banned symbols after another minor posted a swastika on Morozov’s social media page. Authorities claimed Morozov did not delete the symbol with sufficient speed.
The government continued to employ its longstanding use of SORM, 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 email communications, identify internet users, and monitor their internet activity.
Academic Freedom and Cultural Events
The government took new steps during the year to restrict academic and cultural freedom.
On March 21, authorities revoked the license of the European University at St. Petersburg, which was known for its liberal views, in a move observers believed to be politically motivated. Local authorities terminated the university’s lease in September. The university came under criticism from nationalist politicians in 2016 because of a gender studies course it had offered.
On August 22, authorities arrested well-known theater director Kirill Serebrennikov on embezzlement charges punishable by up to 10 years in prison, alleging he took state funds for a Shakespeare play that was never produced. According to media outlets, however, the play had been staged more than 15 times. Observers believed the charges were politically motivated, citing Serebrennikov’s participation in antigovernment protests and criticism of government policies.
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. According to state-controlled press reports from July 11, Culture Minister Vladimir Medinskiy ordered the last-minute cancellation of a ballet at Moscow’s Bolshoy Theater about the life of Soviet ballet dancer Rudolf Nuriyev because it addressed the topic of Nuriyev’s sexual orientation. Medinskiy denied the allegations of censorship, but noted that he supported the theater’s decision to “postpone” the ballet. The ballet was later staged at the Bolshoy for two performances in December.
Persons expressing views of historical events that run counter to officially accepted narratives faced harassment. For example, some Russian Orthodox and nationalist political figures led a campaign to ban the film Matilda, which depicted Tsar Nikolas II’s romance with a ballerina. On August 31, unknown individuals threw Molotov cocktails at the studio of the film’s director, Aleksey Uchitel. On September 11, unknown individuals set fire to two cars outside the legal firm that represents Uchitel’. Screenings of the film around the country were cancelled after bomb threats. News outlets linked a September 6 arson attack on the Cosmos cinema in Yekaterinburg to opposition to the film.