Galina Arapova on the latest developments in the battle against drug propaganda on the internet: “I can’t imagine what else there is to ban.”

16 February 2020

Source: Moscow Helsinki Group [original source: Novaya gazeta]

The State Duma Commission on Foreign Interference in Russia’s Internal Affairs has accused Meduza, Radio Svoboda, the BBC and others, including organisations that are undesirable in Russia, of promoting drugs among young people and trying to get drugs decriminalised in the country. The chair of the commission, Vasily Pisarev, has stated that making drug use socially acceptable and promoting “drug-liberal ideas” “represents a direct threat to the population growth of our country and the preservation of traditional moral values in Russian society.” In his view, the aim of “lobbyists trying to introduce substitution therapy in Russia” is to serve the interests of foreign companies that manufacture expensive drugs like methadone. The Ministry of Internal Affairs [MVD] noted that media content is being checked for drug propaganda and involvement in drug trafficking.

Director of the Mass Media Defence Centre, media lawyer and laureate of a Moscow Helsinki Group prize, Galina Arapova, responds to questions put by Novaya Gazeta on what restrictions exist for the media and NGOs at present, and what will change in light of the State Duma and the MVD’s decision to start fighting online drug propaganda.

The State Duma has said it intends to impose harsher punishments for online drug propaganda. What restrictions are currently in place regarding the distribution of information on drugs? 

I can’t imagine what else there is to ban. Article 4 of the law “On mass media” already prohibits the promotion of drugs. It is prohibited to disseminate information in the media or online about where drugs can be bought and how they are manufactured and used, including information on precursors (ingredients that can be used for manufacture). The dissemination of such information is an abuse of the freedom of mass media. It is also prohibited to talk about the benefits of one drug over another. Roskomnadzor [the Federal Service for Supervision of Communications, Information Technology and Mass Media] monitors all materials on the subject. 

There is a similar norm in the law “On information, information technologies and information protection”. This lists the topics prohibited for distribution, so, if desired, Roskomnadzor can block material if it is deemed to promote drugs. In addition, there is a corresponding article in the Code on Administrative Offences (Article 6.13) that establishes administrative responsibility for the dissemination of information on drugs. There are also similar provisions in the law “On the protection of children from information harmful to their health and development”. 

What fines are imposed on the media and for what, exactly?

Let me tell you about two notable cases. A blogger with the online publication “7×7” published a link to a video interview with libertarian Mikhail Svetov in which, while discussing issues of politics and society, he talks about the dangers of drugs, mentions his own negative experience, and gives his opinion on the legalisation of soft drugs. Roskomnadzor deemed this to be drug propaganda and the expression of an opinion with regard to the benefits of one drug over another. It turns out that the instant someone says soft drugs are less dangerous than hard ones, it is enough for a bureaucrat to hold them accountable and top up the Russian budget. As a result, “7×7” was fined 800,000 roubles and the editor-in-chief an additional 40,000 roubles. A lawyer with the Mass Media Defence Centre, Tumas Misakyan, lodged a complaint with the ECtHR questioning the excessive fine and the blatant restriction of the right to freedom of expression on socially significant issues. Despite the fact that the minimum fine under this article is 800,000 roubles, it is clearly excessive and would be ruinous for many publications. 

In our country, where a person dies in an accident, the penalty assigned to the person at fault is often significantly lower. What is the logic for issuing such huge fines? Whose rights were violated by the opinions expressed by Svetov?

Why was it necessary to punish the editors for the publication of a blog and to limit the opportunity for a public conversation? The Ministry of Justice will have to answer these questions now, as a complaint was communicated by the European Court of Human Rights at the very beginning of February, which means that the ECtHR has begun to review this case.

Another, frankly, ludicrous example occurred with the editor-in-chief of one of Nizhny Novgorod’s regional newspapers, which was also fined a few years ago for drug propaganda. The reason for the fine was that the editor reported on a discussion at an interdepartmental event between the Ministry of Agriculture and the State Drug Control Committee (it had not yet been abolished) in the newspaper: the Minister of Agriculture said that because of the fight against drugs, we had ruined Russia’s traditional hemp production, because farmers are afraid to grow hemp, even though not all varieties contain narcotic substances. The Minister spoke out for the need to support farmers cultivating agricultural hemp in order to resume traditional crafts. The head of the State Drug Control Committee supported him, saying that the one must be distinguished from the other, and that he is in support as well. The local branch of Roskomnadzor declared the publication about this in the regional newspaper to be drug propaganda.

Will it now become even more difficult to write about drugs?

Statements of the kind made by Vasily Pisarev about a Western trend, about the guilt of the media and undesirable organisations actually create a taboo on discussing the problems of drug addiction and narcotics. But if we silence the problem, it will not be solved. It means that society and the media will not be able to discuss it. And how will we know what is going on in this area? Only from Ministry of Health statistics or from reports on the internet by the Ministry of Internal Affairs’ anti-drug distribution unit? But you can’t know much about the reality of the situation from statistics. And so, journalists are already removing names and facts related to drugs, or even related to the fight against drugs, fearing that Roskomnadzor will latch onto them on formal grounds. It means that journalists will engage in even tougher self-censorship and this issue will go underground. This, in my opinion, is very dangerous for society and will not contribute to real assistance for drug addicts and the fight against drug trafficking.

We see that the state is once again introducing a kind of ban on information, but there are no actions aimed at seriously tackling the problem of drug addiction.

What kind of problems face the organisations involved in the fight against drugs or helping drug addicts?

The majority of Russian organisations involved with helping drug addicts, AIDS patients, or working with substitution therapy in Russia, are included on the register of foreign agents, and several have had to close. In principle, before the campaign to declare NGOs as foreign agents, these organisations actively cooperated with the Ministry of Health, with the World Health Organisation, and were very useful in providing assistance to drug addicts, their rehabilitation and reducing the level of heavy drug use. They tried to get drug addicts off hard drugs, and one of the methods for saving them is substitution therapy as well as distributing syringes, so that drug addicts would not contract deadly diseases from sharing syringes. This was not done in order to promote drug addiction, but to reduce the risks and mortality. It’s clear that this is not an ideal choice in tackling drug addiction, but all of these organisations together could not cope with this crisis, that is the job of the government, which needs to deal with this problem systemically. After declaring these organisations to be foreign agents, many government medical institutions ceased co-operation with them, and their work was made significantly more difficult. Thousands of drug addicts who had previously received assistance have suffered.

The statement by State Duma deputy Pisarev, from which it follows that the media and undesirable organisations are responsible for the spread of drug addiction in Russia, would seem to be quite unfounded. If the State Duma committee really discovered certain facts, then it should publicise them, it should tell society, it would be interesting. If you find some publications are promoting drugs, then give the facts. We also would like to look at what exactly the relevant authorities say is the issue and we can assess what it was the journalists wrote that was wrong, where they were mistaken and what needs to be done to not violate the law in the future. But they have not given us any facts yet. Not a single one, except media publications about the ‘Hemp Marches’ in St. Petersburg that were held there more than a dozen years in a row and were officially permitted by the authorities. I don’t understand what the State Duma deputies saw in the 2018 reports on the permitted rally that was dangerous.

Russia is one of the countries where the distribution of drugs is very high. And here we have to ask, are Meduza, Radio Svoboda, BBC and other organisations listed by the State Duma the cause of the high level of drug use in our country? Or perhaps the causes lies in the systemic problems of our health care, inadequate work by law enforcement agencies to stop drug trafficking, the lack of rehabilitation facilities or a failure of youth policy, and so on?

We should also remember the negative influence of anti-drug measures on the quality of medical care for cancer patients who need medicinal drugs for the relief of pain. But there is a reverse side to this, doctors are prosecuted for writing prescriptions for drugs, so therefore they are very cautious about doing this. And the organisations assisting children suffering from cancer are shouting out that in the sphere of palliative care doctors almost never give such drugs to children because of the sham struggle with drug addicts among young people: probably because of the doctors’ yet greater fear of prosecution since this can be considered as inducing minors to become drug addicts. Surely such an approach to combatting drug addiction cannot be considered effective? It is the same with the ban on information – this is unlikely to lead to a real reduction in dangerous information about drugs. Let’s be honest, that information is not spread via professional media; most of it is spread through the Darknet.

And it seems that, judging by the scale of the growth of the problem, the law enforcement agencies are not doing much to fight against the sale of drugs on the Darknet and the underground infrastructure distributing drugs through dealers.

Aside from a ban on the discussion of drugs, what else is the government doing?

It would be good to hear from the departments responsible for spear-heading efforts to combat drug trafficking, provide help to those suffering from drug addiction, and other work within this sphere. Most information we have to date can only be gleaned from what is written in the press, including worrying statistics on drug trafficking in Russia, the critical situation with respect to prescribing narcotic drugs for palliative care, and of course, the intermittent successes of the police in seizing large quantities of drugs. But nevertheless, we still won’t forget the disgraceful instances of drugs being planted on individuals. In this regard we need look no further than the case of investigative journalist Ivan Golunov. Everything turned out okay in the end for him thanks in part to the solidarity shown by the journalistic community. It’s quite possible that individual state agencies, or rather individual employees acting on their own initiative, will also try to undertake action to curb the growth in drug use, clamp down on drug trafficking and the sale of drugs online. But I’m afraid it would appear that there isn’t much in the way of concrete action being done by the state in this sphere.

Through ‘Proyekt’ there was some good work done by journalists investigating the sale of narcotics on the Darknet. After reading through their findings I got the impression that the law enforcement bodies know perfectly well what’s going on – they just don’t do anything about it. Because journalists found out six months ago where drugs were being sold, by whom and for how much. They spoke with platform moderators and learned that this was a huge market. Couldn’t law enforcement bodies, with the wealth of resources they have at their disposal, have discovered what the journalists did?

And now they won’t be allowed to talk about this. So society won’t be any the wiser as to how the situation is developing in Russia, nor will there any be any public monitoring of the work of the state on this issue, which at the very least is extremely risky.

The ban on discussion of this issue only exacerbates what is a very complex situation. It’s obvious that the issue, and the scale of it, needs to be acknowledged, as well as introducing serious preventive measures, to ascertain which approach to combatting drug trafficking and addiction is most effective, to learn from other countries’ experience. To deny that the issue of addiction exists is foolish – you get the impression the blame is merely being shifted.

The press are a window into the processes occurring in society. Journalists write about society’s concerns. Owing to the absence of a systematic approach in this sphere, introducing a further ban on the distribution of information appears an entirely unconvincing measure, rather than a kind of genuine activity it would seem to be the unjustified introduction of censorship on an awkward issue. To give effect to this new legislation, new police departments are being set up to combat pro-drug propaganda online charged with reporting any violations to the federal centre. I’m afraid that once again what we’re seeing is merely window dressing in respect of combating the issue: they’ll chase down teenagers posting memes online and journalists for controversial interviews, just as it was when they established the network of centres for combatting extremism [‘E-Centres’]. Probably the police from the ‘E-Centres’ also catch neo-Nazis – that’s unfortunately public knowledge – while the level of domestic xenophobia is far from diminishing. But we also see people being punished for catching Pokemon in church, for anti-fascist posters bearing swastikas, all in relation to combatting extremism. This shouldn’t be happening. Such methods do nothing to either tackle the issue or help society cope with such social ills.

Translated by Nicky Brown, Simon Cosgrove, Mercedes Malcomson and Nathalie Wilson

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