Spotlight on the UPR - Russian Federation
The Universal Periodic Review (UPR) of the United Nations (UN)
April 2013 In late April and early May 2013 the human rights records of Uzbekistan, Russia, Azerbaijan and Cameroon will come under review for the second time under the Universal Periodic Review (UPR) mechanism of the United Nations (UN). PEN International will be highlighting the content of these reports at the UPR sessions in Geneva and conducting advocacy with governments to advance the situation of freedom of expression in each of these countries. On 1 May at 12.30 PEN International and Article 19 will co-host a side event at the UN Palais des Nations Rm XXII examining the treatment of Freedom of Expression in the 2013 UPR with speakers including Vice-President of Russian PEN, Alexey Simonov.
Last October, PEN International submitted reports on the freedom of expression situation of each of these countries. In the lead up to the Universal Periodic Review, we have been examining the freedom of expression situation in each of these countries. In the second of these installments, we will look at our UPR submission on Russia in light of recent events.
Threats to freedom of expression since the submission of the UPR report.
Since Vladimir Putin returned to presidential office in May 2012, the Kremlin has passed a series of restrictive laws and provisions targeting civil society and freedom of expression in particular. Until recently however, these laws had not been implemented. In March 2013, statements by Putin and Russian Member of Parliament Aleksey Mitrofanov, as well as raids on human rights organisations, signalled that the threat of these laws are now becoming a reality. For example, in March, Mitrofanov, who heads the parliament committee on information policy, technology, and communications, warned a press conference that “an era of absolutely free Internet in Russia has ended.”
In April, the Duma overwhelmingly passed the first reading of a new bill that could provide heavy fines and prison terms of up to three years for commentary that is considered to be “insulting believers’ feelings”. This bill has been widely criticised for its vague wording and that it would be impossible to legislate fairly. The bill requires two further readings.
PEN International’s UPR submission
Freedom of expression in Russia
The Russian Federation is bound by international commitments to freedom of expression and freedom of assembly, having ratified the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights in 1973. These rights are enshrined in Article 29 (freedom of speech) and 31 (freedom of assembly) of the Constitution of the Russian Federation. Despite these commitments, and the State’s acceptance of recommendations arising from the 2009 UPR, the Russian Federation has failed to make progress towards fulfilling these guarantees. PEN is especially concerned that during and following protests against both the parliamentary elections in 2011 and the presidential elections in 2012, writers and journalists have been targeted for attempting to exercise these fundamental rights.
In areas where steps were taken over the last four years to provide for freedom of expression, such as changes to libel laws, these have recently been reversed. Following his reinstatement as President and entry into office, President Putin has overseen the introduction of several new laws that further threaten citizens’ abilities to exercise these rights.
Harassment and Attacks on Journalists
Journalists continue to face harassment and attacks for reporting on politically sensitive issues, and many were detained for their coverage of the elections in 2011-2012. For example, opposition figurehead and reporter Alexei Nevalny was detained for 21 days following protests over the parliamentary elections in December 2011. While much of the media is under state control, the few remaining independent voices that attempt to hold the state apparatus to account, such as Novaya Gazeta, continue to be targets for repression.
The harassment and detentions of journalists appear to have been stepped up following the re-election of President Putin in March 2012. For example, during protests against the President’s inauguration between 6-9 May 2012 more than 50 journalists were detained briefly without charge.
PEN International remains concerned about the lack of progress towards justice for murdered journalists. 53 journalists have been killed in Russia over the last 20 years according to the records of the Committee to Protect Journalists, for exercising their right to free expression by reporting on issues pertaining to human rights abuses, conflict and corruption. Emblematic cases, such as the murders of Anna Politkovskaya (2006), and Natalia Estemirova (2009), remain unresolved.
Despite commitments by the Russian Federation during the 2009 UPR to fully investigate all such cases, there has been little evidence of sincere attempts to do so, and human rights organisations have exposed leads in these cases which have not subsequently been pursued by the authorities. The failure to adequately address such outstanding cases adversely impacts the ability of Russian citizens to exercise their right to seek and receive information as guaranteed under international free expression protections. As a result, journalists often resort to self-censorship in order to avoid serious conflicts with the authorities when reporting on sensitive topics.
Recriminalisation of Libel
In line with its commitment to promote freedom of expression, the Russian Federation decriminalised libel in January 2012, making it an administrative rather than criminal offence and thus bringing legislation into line with European standards. However, this move was subsequently reversed, recriminalising slander and libel and imposing higher financial penalties for such offenses.
The text of the legislation particularly focuses on allegations against judges, prosecutors and law enforcement officials, with fines of up to 5 million rubles (£99,000) for false accusation relating to an individual’s involvement in serious crimes.
PEN International is concerned about the additional pressure this puts on journalists and the negative impact this will have on freedom of expression, as many smaller, independent media outlets can not afford to take the risk of facing allegations under this new law. It seriously restricts the ability of journalists and civil society to monitor and report on abuses of power and thus threatens the independent voice of the fourth estate.
Use of Hooliganism and Extremism Laws
PEN International, like many other human rights organisations, has been alarmed by the use of hooliganism laws to suppress free speech. This was illustrated by the recent Pussy Riot case which attracted widespread condemnation. Maria Alyokhina, Nadezhda Tolokonnikova and Yekaterina Samutsevich were arrested in March 2012 following their protest performance in a Moscow Cathedral, and in August 2012 were jailed for two years on charges of “hooliganism motivated by religious hatred”.
This high profile case is just one example of how opposition voices are being silenced by the use of such laws. Hooliganism is an offense under Article 213 of the Russian Criminal Code, but remains poorly defined, which has allowed it to be increasingly used to target those speaking or writing in support of the political opposition. The case of Pussy Riot also suggests a growing influence of the Russian Orthodox Church on the state.
PEN International, along with other human rights organisations, is concerned about moves towards internet censorship introduced in July 2012. Although the legislative amendments are intended to protect children, targeting a blacklist of websites promoting child pornography, suicide and drugs, concerns have been raised that this will introduce a high level of government control. While a separate agency will oversee the blacklist, the new legislation also grants courts the power to add websites to the blacklist, which is alarming in a context in which opposition or religious groups are frequently labelled as extremist and could face additional censorship in this way. Print and television media are strongly controlled by the state, and increased regulation of the internet poses a severe threat to freedom of expression.
Amendments to NGO Legislation
During the 2009 UPR the Russian Federation accepted recommendations to review laws on non-governmental organisations (NGOs) to ensure their compatibility with international human rights standards and obligations. Some positive steps were taken towards this in the form of amendments introduced in June 2009 under former President Medvedev. However, these have recently been reversed.
Under a new series of amendments which were rushed through parliament and signed into law on 21 July 2012, NGOs that receive foreign funding and are politically engaged will be recognized as “foreign agents” and required to undergo a separate registration process with the Ministry of Justice. Consequently they will be subject to additional investigations and hefty reporting requirements, and failure to comply could lead to high fines or even prison sentences.
The term “foreign agents” has particularly negative connotations in post-Soviet Russia, and severely misrepresents the role of NGOs. Human rights organizations have criticized the bill for reinforcing state control over civil society in the country, discrediting advocacy and human rights groups, and threatening the work of independent election monitors in particular.
PEN International is concerned that this law severely restricts the ability of civil society to hold officials to account, and that when it comes into effect from November 2012 it will further limit the ability of journalists and activists to monitor and report on opposition politics. As such it threatens freedom of expression and the right of Russian citizens to information.
Threats to Freedom of Assembly
Use of Violence against Demonstrators
Despite commitments expressed by the Russian Federation during the 2009 UPR to take steps to promote freedom of assembly, this has failed to materialise and instead this fundamental right has been frequently violated.
2011-2012 saw an increase in public protest in Russia, which has unfortunately been accompanied by the use of force by authorities as they seek to disperse peaceful assemblies. This was particularly acute around the parliamentary elections in December 2011, presidential elections in March 2012, and the inauguration of President Putin in May 2012. Journalists and writers have been particularly targeted for attempting to report on such events.
Restrictions on LGBT Activists
The lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender (LGBT) community continues to suffer from restrictions on freedom of assembly and expression in Russia. Following bans on LGBT pride parades in Moscow between 2006-2008, the European Court of Human Rights ruled in 2010 that this amounted to a violation of freedom of assembly. Despite this ruling, LGBT activists continue to face repressive action from the authorities, and in August 2012 the Moscow city council confirmed a century-long ban on gay pride events in the city.
PEN International makes the following recommendations to the Government of the Russian Federation:
• Enable journalists to report on protests unhindered; and implement measures to ensure full justice for all murdered writers and journalists;
• Decriminalise libel and bring legislation back into line with European norms for such offences;
• End the application of hooliganism and extremism laws as a means to suppress dissent; support the Supreme Court in its efforts to clarify definitions and educate Russia’s prosecutors and judges about this;
• Allay concerns that there is collusion between the church and state to penalise critics of the church; and ensure that the draft legislation to criminalise blasphemy is not introduced;
• Review legislation aimed at internet regulation, further defining the target of such regulation, and ensure the provision of independent oversight of the process for blacklisting web content;
• Rescind all legislation that curtails the capacity of advocacy groups to carry out their functions as promoters and defenders of civil and political rights; encourage conformity with the recommendations made by the Expert Council on NGO Law of the Council of Europe;
• Uphold rulings of the European Court of Human Rights to address restrictions to freedom of expression faced by LGBT activists; review new legislation to ensure that it does not penalise commentary on LGBT issues, and widely publicise the clarification of the Supreme Court.
Please read the full text of PEN’s submission to the UN UPR on the Russian Federation, including a list of recommendations here: PEN_UPR Russia
We ask you to take action by writing to your country’s representative in Geneva to ask that during the review of the Russian Federation, their delegation makes the recommendations listed above. You may wish to copy the report to support your request. Follow this link to find the contact details of the representative of your country to the United Nations in Geneva, click here.
For further information on PEN International’s policy and advocacy work at the United Nations please contact Sarah Clarke, International Policy and Advocacy Officer, at firstname.lastname@example.org.