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Russia steps up crackdown on rights groups, Internet

Russian President Vladimir Putin is signaling a intensified crackdown on human rights organizations. (AP/RIA-Novosti, Alexei Nikolsky)

Recent statements by Vladimir Putin and Russian Member of Parliament (MP) Aleksey Mitrofanov, as well as raids on human rights organizations, signal that the threat hanging over civil society and freedom of expression in Russia has become reality. Since Putin returned to presidential office in May, the Kremlin has passed a series of restrictive laws and provisions, but until recently authorities had not acted upon many of them.

In Moscow last week, 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." The deputy noted the expanded role of the Internet in Russians' social and political life and made clear that authorities are seeking to expand control, local press reported. "When there were around two million users, the Internet was not a political or economic factor; it was not a factor at all. But when it became a factor then they [authorities] are going to deal with it," Mitrofanov said, according to news agency Interfax. The MP acknowledged that his press conference was directly related to a speech by Putin at the February 14 board meeting of Russia's security service, the FSB.

In that speech, Putin equated extremism with terrorism, and urged FSB generals and officers to fight extremism by "blocking the attempts by radicals to use social networks, the Internet, and other Internet technologies as propaganda tools." According to the independent news website Gazeta, Putin said a "direct link between extremist and terrorist groups is obvious. Hence, it is necessary to act decisively... Citizens' constitutional right of freedom of speech is firm and irrevocable--however, nobody has a right to spread hatred or shake up society and the country."

Mitrofanov made clear how Putin's signal to the FSB would be interpreted by authorities. Referring to blogs, whose influence on public opinion in Russia has been comparable to that of mass media, Mitrofanov cited a "real and serious problem which has to be dealt with." The Internet has functioned as an alternative to Russian television, which under Putin has gained notoriety as a state propaganda machine.

Officials likely have in mind the effectiveness and popularity of anti-corruption activist Aleksei Navalny, whose blog has hundreds of thousands of subscribers and is read by millions of Internet users. In early February, days before Putin addressed the FSB, Navalny revealed on his blog that MP Vladimir Pekhtin and his son own high-priced apartments and a mansion in the United States, despite tense relations with Washington, which Moscow has deemed "hostile" to Russia. The properties were not listed on required disclosure forms, and the exposé forced Pekhtin, who was chairman of the ethics committee in the lower house, to resign from parliament.

The list of repressive legislation adopted in recent months includes: a law restricting public assembly and protest rallies; the recriminalization of defamation; regulation of Internet content; a new edition of the law on state secrets; a foreign agents law, which in essence declared all Russian human rights groups enemies of the state; a law restricting adoption of Russian children by foreigners, whose provisions inexplicably include a ban on foreigners holding executive positions at Russian non-governmental organizations; and the eviction from Russia of the U.S. Agency for International Development (USAID), which financed much of local civil society.

Pavel Chikov, the head of local watchdog Agora and a member of the president's human rights council, called this parade of legislation "Putin's political manifesto." Referring to changes since Dmitry Medvedev's presidency, Chikov told CPJ: "This unmistakable signal to society implies that a liberal political course in Russia turned 180 degrees, and is patriotic and pro-Putin."

Until recently, the laws posed mostly a hypothetical threat. Addressing the parliament in January, Russian Justice Minister Aleksandr Konovalov all but refused to implement the foreign agents law, saying the legislation did not grant his ministry power to search or audit NGOs for foreign funding or gauge political activism, Gazeta reported. When Agora asked in September for details on how the law would be used in practice, Justice Ministry officials could not explain how they planned to execute it, Gazeta said.

"These laws were created by the people who got access to lawmaking without having any idea about the law," Aleksei Simonov, director of Moscow-based press freedom group Glasnost Defense Foundation, told CPJ. "This is why these laws are weak, superficial, and very biased from the standpoint of their actual implementation. And those few professionals remaining in our legal authorities try not to implement these laws in order to avoid shaking an already legally unstable situation." Citing the Russian version of "nothing ventured, nothing gained"--fearful of wolves, don't go into the forest--Simonov said the recent laws were aimed at stopping people from venturing into the forest. "It was enough to mention there are traps and deadfalls in the woods," he said.

According to Simonov, since authorities re-introduced defamation to the criminal code last summer, prosecutors have brought charges against journalists four times, but no cases have been brought to trial. Journalist Yelena Masyuk, member of presidential human rights council and a 1997 recipient of CPJ's International Press Freedom Award, told CPJ that she raised the unacceptable  nature of the new defamation law with Putin in November and he asked the council to develop amendments to mitigate the legislation.

However, soon after Putin addressed the FSB, conditions changed in Russia. Putin reminded the officials that the law on NGOs must be implemented, saying: "Nobody has a monopoly to speak on behalf of the Russian society, in particular organizations managed and financed from abroad who in other words serve foreign interests. Any direct or circumstantial interference into our internal affairs, any modes of influence on Russia or our partners and satellites, is unacceptable."

In the following weeks, Russia's general prosecutor's office launched unprecedented, unannounced audits of hundreds of local NGOs, aiming to find "foreign agents" among them. Most recently, prosecutors raided the most prominent human rights group, Memorial, as well as the local office of Amnesty International. And members of the parliament, including Mitrofanov, announced they are working on legislation to impose tighter control over the Internet, although no concrete details have been offered, according to news reports. A law allowing authorities to blacklist and block certain websites was passed last year, drawing criticism from free expression advocates, including CPJ.

[Reporting from Moscow. Translated from Russian by Muzaffar Suleymanov]

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