Simon Cosgrove: A look back at the past week in Russia [week-ending 15 April 2022]

17 April 2022

By Simon Cosgrove

Simon is chair of Rights in Russia but writes these comments in a personal capacity and they may not necessarily represent the views of the organisation

International human rights organisations this week focused primarily on freedom of expression within Russia. Against the background of the Russian war against Ukraine, attacks by the Russian athorities on freedom of expression inside Russia continued, now with the additional available tool of the recently introduced Article 207.3 of the Russian Criminal Code (and the corresponding Article 20.3.3 of the Code of Administrative Offences – both adopted on 4 March 2022) empowering courts to impose prison terms of up to 15 years for ‘fake’ information that ‘discredits’ the Russian military.

Four journalists from the student-run online magazine DOXA – Armen AramyanVladimir MetelkinAlla Gutnikova, and Natalia Tyshkevich – were each sentenced to two years of correctional labour and banned from administering websites for three years. They were convicted of ‘involving minors in illegal protests’ when, at the time of the public protests against the arrest of Aleksei Navalny, they had posted a three-minute video on YouTube in which they said it was illegal to expel and intimidate students for participating in these rallies. The Committee to Protect Journalists called for the four to be released, describing the sentences as ‘deeply disturbing’ and a further attempt by the Russian authorities ‘to stifle independent reporting.’ The organisation reported that ‘Individuals sentenced to correctional labor are not imprisoned but must pay the state treasury a portion of their wages during the time of their sentence; if unemployed, they must work at jobs assigned by the Federal Penitentiary Service.’  The four journalists were arrested in April 2021 and had been held under house arrest (Tyshkevich was jailed on 2 April 2022 for 15 days for displaying in 2017 symbols related to Ukraine that are prohibited).

A court in St. Petersburg remanded activist and artist Aleksandra Skochilenko in custody until 1 June 2022 on charges of ‘discrediting the Russian Armed Forces’ after she had replaced price tags in supermarkets with anti-war slogans. Amnesty International described the move as part of ‘a wider clampdown on a network of feminist-led anti-war activists’ and a ‘war against the human rights of Russian people.’ The organisation said ‘all activists detained for peacefully participating in acts of anti-war dissent must be immediately and unconditionally released.’ If convicted, Skochilenko faces up to 10 years in jail.’

Russian law enforcement officers arrested Mikhail Afanasyev, editor-in-chief of the online journal Novy Fokus, in Abakan, Republic of Khakassia, and Sergei Mikhailov, the founder of Listok, a newspaper based in Gorno-Altaysk, Republic of Altai. The two were arrested after publishing content critical of the war in Ukraine. Amnesty International, the Committee to Protect Journalists and Reporters Without Borders all called for their immediate release. Amnesty International said, ‘Evidently unsatisfied with merely blocking critical news sites or forcing reporters into exile, the Kremlin now seeks to incarcerate journalists who report on anti-war protests or Russian soldiers who refuse to fight in Ukraine.’ The organisation called on the Russian authorities to release all those arrested ‘merely for reporting on the Russian army,’ repeal the notorious Article 207.3 of the Criminal Code and end the crackdown on freedom of expression and press freedom. Lawyers from Setevye Svobody [Online Freedoms], a Russian group which provides legal assistance in freedom of expression cases, are supporting both detainees. The Committee to Protect Journalists described the arrests as ‘among the first instances of the new repressive law on false information about the Russian army being used directly against a news outlet for its reporting.’ Also on 14 April, Gorno-Altaisk city court fined Listok 300,000 roubles and its director Olga Komarova 100,000 roubles for discrediting the army, according to reports. An investigation conducted by the Ministry of Internal Affairs found that several Listok articles ‘discredited the use of the Armed Forces […] in the framework of the special operation in Ukraine,’ in accordance with Article 20.3.3,Part 1, of the Code of administrative Offences. Reporters Without Borders said the Russian authorities are now targeting critical local media outlets by means of the new laws establishing war censorship. The organisation called for the repeal of the laws and described the authorities actions as ‘a painstaking witchhunt designed to silence the few local journalists still daring to provide reporting or commentary that runs counter to the prevailing propaganda about the war launched by Russia in Ukraine.’

Reporters Without Borders (RSF) reported that it had restored the Russian public’s access to the Radio France Internationale website within hours of its being blocked by the Rusian authorities, thanks to the network of hackers and cyber-security engineers that RSF calls upon in its Operation Collateral Freedom to combat online censorship all over the world. Operation Collateral Freedom creates an exact copy or ‘mirror’ of the site and places it on a content delivery network (CDN) that hosts many other services (last month Operation Collateral Freedom restored access to the websites of Deutsche Welle, the German public broadcaster, and Meduza after they were also blocked).

The notorious prosecution of the Gulag historian and former head of the Karelia branch of Memorial Yury Dmitriev was also in the news this week. On 15 March 2022 the Supreme Court of the Republic of Karelia dismissed an appeal by Dmitriev against the 15-year prison sentence handed down against him by the Petrozavodsk City Court on 27 December 2021. Dmitriev’s case will now go to the European Court of Human Rights. Meanwhile Dmitriev, who had been transferred on 30 March from the remand prison in Petrozavodsk where he had been held for five years while his trials were on going to a strict regime penal colony in northern Karelia, has now been taken to a colony in the Mordovia region. The Observatory for the Protection of Human Rights Defenders, a partnership of FIDH and the World Organisation Against Torture (OMCT), in a statement noted that the judicial harassment of Yury Dmitriev dates back to December 2016 and noted also that this judicial harassment against Yury Dmitriev has taken place in the context of increased harassment against the Memorial movement (both Interantional Memorial and Memorial Human Rights Centre have been closed down by the authorities). The Observatory called on the Russian authorities to ‘immediately and unconditionally release Dmitriev, to guarantee his physical integrity and psychological well-being, and to put an end to any act of harassment, including at the judicial level, against him and all the human rights defenders in the country.’

As Russia’s brutal and unprovoked military assault on Ukraine continued, the Fédération internationale des ligues des droits de l’homme [FIDH] issued a statement expressing solidarity with those calling for an end to war and for the respect of human rights. Among other things, FIDH urged the Russian government to effect an immediate ceasefire and seek peace; establish corridors of safe and unobstructed passage and authorise, without restriction, access to independent humanitarian aid and monitoring of human rights, provide humanitarian assistance to civilians affected by the conflict and protection to civilians in danger; withdraw its troops and the armed groups that it supports from all internationally recognised Ukrainian territory; immediately put an end to any violation of international human rights and humanitarian law in Ukraine; immediately put an end to harassment, including judicial harassment of journalists and human rights defenders and proceed to the immediate release of those who have been arbitrarily detained; realise its duty to guarantee, under all circumstances, the rights to freedom of expression, assembly and association, such as they are enshrined in international human rights law, and namely in Articles 19, 21 and 22 of the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights.

Quote for the Week

I was teaching students the other day, and I asked how many of them knew who Joseph Goebbels was, and only about four of them had heard. I said, you really need to learn because what we are seeing now is no different, in terms of the use of technology in service of a particularly appalling type of dictatorship. We are seeing that now. The channels are different, the behaviour is different, the tactics are pretty much the same. The inversion of truth, the discrediting of the press, the telling of ever bigger lies and repeating those lies until populations don’t really understand and can’t really think for themselves. Everybody who is a journalist in Ukraine, everybody who’s a journalist in Russia completely understands this. And now I think American companies have to wake up to the fact that they are really invested in there.

Emily Bell, director of the Tow Center for Digital Journalismn at Columbia Journalism School in New York director, talking to the Committee to Protect Journalists:

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