11 September 2022
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
This week saw further attacks on freedom of expression in Russia to be seen in an intensification of repressive measures against journalists and activists, as well as lawyers and prisoners of conscience. In a travesty of justice, journalist Ivan Safronov was sentenced to 22 years in prison on what Human Rights Watch called trumped up charges.The homes of journalists and actists were searched in many Russian cities. The authorities suspended the printing licence of Novaya gazeta. The pentitentiary authorities in the penal colony where Aleksei Navalny is held removed lawyer-client privilege in relation to the prisoner of conscience. Human Rights Watch criticised Russia’s ‘gay propaganda for restricting the rights of LGBT youth and stifling public expression of identity. Meanwhile, in relation to Russia’s war against Ukraine, Amnesty International called for the demilitarization of a zone around the Zaporizhzhia Nuclear Power Plant and condemned the Russian practice of ‘filtration’ of Ukrainian citizens on occupied territories; Reporters Without Borders called on France’s broadcasting regulator to order French TV satellite operator Eutelsat to stop carrying three Russian TV channels; and a coalition of 50 international human rights and civil society organisations urged the EU to establish a secure visa framework for human rights defenders.
This week OVD-Info reported on the searches of the homes of a number of journalists and activists in several Russian regions – Moscow and Moscow region, Ekaterinburg, TIumen, Krasnodar and Rostov-on-Don – in connection with an investigation into the of ‘spreading of “fake news” about the Russian army’ allegedly by Ilya Ponomarev. Ponomarev is a politician and former State Duma deputy who now lives in Ukraine. The Committee to Protect Journalists said ‘Russian authorities should stop using investigations into so-called “fake” information about the Russian military to harass journalists, and should let the media work freely.’
Russian authorities’ harassment of journalists throughout the country over their alleged connections to a man accused of spreading false information about the military is just another example of how the country’s government will jump at any chance to investigate members of the press. Authorities must stop targeting journalists with searches, interrogations, and other forms of harassment, and allow them to work freely.Carlos Martinez de la Serna, CPJ’s program director, in New York.
Meanwhile, OVD-Info also reported that searches have been conducted of the homes of anti-fascist leftwing activists in Tiumen, Ekaterinburg and Surgut. Six people were remanded in custody on terrorism charges (Article 205.4 of the Russian Criminal Code) and on charges of manufacturing explosives (Article 223.1). At least two of those remanded in custody later said they had been tortured
Unfortunately, torture has long been part of the FSB’s usual toolkit. If an investigation has been opened in connection with terrorism, the FSB is very likely to torture the suspects.OVD-Info
OVD-Info also reported that the authorities have lifted lawyer-client privilege in relation to Aleksei Navalny on the grounds that Navalny ‘has not ceased engaging in criminal activity’ while serving his sentence. OVD-Info pointed out that lawyer-client privilege is protected by federal law and not at the mere say-so of penitentiary officials.
Nonetheless, lawyer-client privilege is protected by federal law, and therefore the penitentiary officials running Vladimir penal colony should temper their ardour.OVD-Info
The sentencing of Ivan Safronov, a former Kommersant and Vedomosti journalist and adviser to the head of the national space agency, Roskosmos, to 22 years’ imprisonment, a fine of 500,000 roubles and two years of restricted freedom following his release on charges of treason was also highlighted by OVD-Info. Amnesty international also condemned the trial, saying Safronov had been ‘tried solely for his journalistic work’ and the trial ‘had absolutely nothing to do with justice.’ The Committee to Protect Journalists also condemned the conviction and sentencing of Safronov on what it called ‘trumped up charges.’ The editors of OpenDemocracy in an article said: ‘Ivan Safronov’s imprisonment for 22 years is another nail in the coffin for press freedom.’
The absurdly harsh sentence meted out to Ivan Safronov symbolizes the perilous reality faced by journalists in Russia today. It also exposes the failings of the Russian justice system and the impunity enjoyed by state agencies, who routinely fabricate cases with little or no evidence to support them. Since Ivan Safronov’s arrest in July 2020, his lawyers have been repeatedly obstructed by the authorities. The investigation into his case and the trial itself were marred by numerous procedural violations. It quickly became clear to anyone following the case that this prosecution had absolutely nothing to do with justice. Ivan Safronov was tried solely for his journalistic work. His only ‘crime’ was collecting information from open sources and being acquainted with and befriending foreigners. The Russian authorities must urgently quash his conviction and sentence and must be immediately released.Natalia Prilutskaya, Amnesty International’s Russia Researcher
The 22-year prison sentence for Ivan Safronov, guilty of no other crime than doing his job as a journalist, is simply unacceptable and utterly shocking, and must be immediately reversed. Russian authorities must not contest Safronov’s appeal, release him immediately, and stop targeting journalists with political trials aimed at suppressing and terrorizing independent voices.Carlos Martinez de la Serna, CPJ’s program director, in New York
The editors of OpenDemocracy in an article said: ‘Ivan Safronov’s imprisonment for 22 years is another nail in the coffin for press freedom’
The cost of high-quality journalism, including observing journalistic standards, in Russia today is becoming unimaginably high. In the judgement of Moscow City court, it’s 22 years in prison.OpenDemocracy
The Committee to Protect Journalists also called on the Russian authorities to reverse its recent decision to suspend the printing licence of Novaya Gazeta and end censorship of the newspaper and harassment of its staff. Novaya gazeta had stopped printing back in March following warnings under the ‘foreign agent’ law. This week a Moscow court granted a request by the Russian state media regulator Roskomnadzor to revoke the newspaper’s print licence. The Committee to Protect Journalists quoted Novaya Gazeta chief editor Dmitry Muratov, a Nobel Peace laureate and 2007 winner of CPJ’s International Press Freedom Award, as describing the court decision as ‘a political hit job, without the slightest legal basis.’
With their continued regulatory harassment of Novaya Gazeta and Novaya Rasskaz-Gazeta, Russian authorities are proving their determination to wipe out the country’s independent media outlets and put an end to free journalism in Russia. Authorities must immediately reverse the suspension of Novaya Gazeta’s print license, restore Novaya Rasskaz-Gazeta’s registration, and let all media outlets work freely.Carlos Martinez de la Serna, CPJ’s program director, in New York
Human Rights Watch in a report on the rights of LGBT people globally said that while ‘protections for LGBT people’s rights have advanced rapidly in many countries and regions,’ there is however a ‘new form of anti-LGBT sentiment’ that in some countries is being ‘codified in legislation that focuses on censoring public expressions of identity, including speech on sexual orientation and gender identity, justified under the pretext of “protecting children”.‘ The organisation said that the Russian “gay propaganda” law is a ‘classic example of political homophobia that curbs the rights of LGBT youth and has a broader, stifling effect on the public expression of identity.’
Russia’s War Against Ukraine
As fighting continued around he Zaporizhzhia Nuclear Power Plant in Ukraine, Amnesty International called for the demilitarization of the power plant and its immediate surroundings, condemning Russia’s occupation of the plant.
By occupying the Zaporizhzhia Nuclear Power Plant, Russian forces are not only endangering those in the plant and its surroundings, but also heightening the risk of a nuclear catastrophe across the region. By placing its forces on the territory of the plant and in its immediate vicinity, Russia bears primary responsibility for the potentially devastating consequences of a nuclear accident. Amnesty International calls for full demilitarization of the power plant and its immediate surroundings. On top of the obvious dangers of militarizing the power plant, a local resident told Amnesty that Ukrainians, including staff who Russian forces suspect of documenting their activities near the plant, have reportedly been subjected to brutal reprisals. Some were abducted and tortured in the basement of the building previously used by the Security Service of Ukraine.Denis Krivosheev, Deputy Director for Research in Amnesty International’s Eastern Europe and Central Asia office
Amnesty International in a statement condemned the actions of Russian forces in subjecting Ukrainian civilians to what it called the ‘rights-abusing process known as “filtration”.’
The abusive and humiliating process known as ‘filtration’ is a shocking violation of international human rights and humanitarian law. […] The Russian authorities must urgently allow the international community to access and monitor temporary placement shelters for Ukrainian civilians and evacuation procedures for civilians trapped in the conflict. They must also immediately ensure that Ukrainian civilians are able to safely leave warzones and enter Ukrainian-controlled territories. Those in Russia must be able to access resources that enable them to leave the country for Ukraine or a third country.Marie Struthers, Amnesty’s Director for Eastern Europe and Central Asia
Reporters Without Borders (RSF) has called on France’s broadcasting regulator, ARCOM, to order French TV satellite operator Eutelsat to stop carrying three Russian TV channels that are spearheads of the Kremlin’s war propaganda. In a formal request, RSF asked ARCOM (the Regulatory Authority for Audiovisual and Digital Communication) to order Eutelsat to stop broadcasting the three Russian disinformation and propaganda TV channels. The six-page request was accompanied by a 266-page report.
France cannot tolerate a situation in which operators under its jurisdiction are contributing to the Kremlin’s war propaganda in violation of their legal obligations. France’s broadcasting regulator has the ability to put an end to this situation, and we call on it to act without delay.Christophe Deloire, Secretary-General of Reporters Without Borders (RSF)
In a joint statement, fifty international human rights and civil society organisations called on the EU to provide ‘an effective and enabling EU Visa framework for At-Risk Human Rights Defenders.’ The organisations said ‘Human rights defenders have the right to carry out their legitimate work safely and to access support and protection when they are at risk, especially those who operate in the most difficult contexts.’
The extraordinary sentence handed down to Ivan Safronov is certainly intended to frighten what remains of Russia’s journalistic community. But one may also speculate that such a horrific sentence, given Russia’s highly personalised power system, may also indicate a very particular and possibly personal grudge against Safronov – something that in any country with any pretensions to the rule of law should have no place in the criminal justice system. A better known victim of such treatment is of course prisoner of conscience Aleksei Navalny whom the authorities have incarcerated for many years and are seeking unlawfully to isolate from the rest of society as much as possible. Meanwhile, the authorities continue at a lower level their ‘scorched earth’ policy against any kind of activism or freedom of expression, the victims of this policy being individual activists, journalists and media outlets alike. As the Ukrainian armed forces continued to perform extraordinary feats of endurance and fortitude in combating Russian aggression, great concerns remain about the fate of the Zaporizhzhia Nuclear Power Plant that Russia seems to want to use as a means of blackmailing the rest of Europe, and indeed the world. Russia’s brutal use of ‘filtration’ against Ukrainian citizens was rightly exposed and condemned this week by Amnesty International as a ‘shocking violation of international human rights and humanitarian law;’ while the problematic international reach of Russia’s state media propaganda was taken up as an issue by Reporters Without Borders; and 50 civil society and human rights organisations urged the EU to ensure Russian human rights defenders, among others, will continue to have secure access to the EU.