4 December 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 new legislation on ‘foreign agents’ was promulgated, making this odious law a yet more insidious and powerful instrument for the regime to use to restrict freedoms of expression and association. At the same time, reports said prisoner of conscience and Vladimir Putin’s main political opponent Aleksei Navalny was being denied letters sent to him by his wife Yulia. In the regime’s continuing attack on freedom of religion, which also combines with on-going repression in the Crimean peninsula, a Crimean Tatar was sentenced to 17 years’ imprisonment for involvement in Hizb ut-Tahrir, an organisation that espouses peace but has been branded by the Russian authorities as terrorist. Meanwhile, Reporters Without Borders launched a new campaign to emphasise the importance of the role played by journalists and news outlets that can bring the truth about the horrors of Russia’s unlawful invasion of Ukraine to the Russian people.
OVD-Info reported that a new law on ‘foreign agents’ has come into force placing even more restrictions on individuals and organisations designated as such from the first of December. The organistion noted that Russia officials will also maintain a list of people ‘affiliated with foreign agents.’ Human Rights Watch described the new law as ‘yet another attack on free expression and legitimate civic activism in Russia’ and called for it to be repealed. Human Rights Watch point out that the law ‘expands the definition of foreign agent to a point at which almost any person or entity, regardless of nationality or location, who engages in civic activism or even expresses opinions about Russian policies or officials’ conduct could be designated a foreign agent, so long as the authorities claim they are under “foreign influence.” It also excludes “foreign agents” from key aspects of civic life.’ Simultaneously, OVD-Info reported that a single register of ‘foreign agents’ has been published on the Ministry of Justice’s website that includes all people, organisations and media outlets previously entered into separate ‘foreign agent’ registers. The new register, with 493 entries, contains personal data such as an individual’s date of birth and links to their websites, along with social media accounts and organisations’ other internet resources.
For more than a decade, Russian authorities have used ‘foreign agents’ laws to smear and punish independent voices. This new tool in the government’s already crowded toolbox makes it even easier to threaten critics, impose harsh restrictions on their legitimate activities and even ban them. It makes thoughtful public discussion about Russia’s past, present, and future simply impossible. […] This new ‘foreign agents’ law is an unrestrained attack on Russian civil society aimed at gagging any public criticism of state policies. It should be scrapped.Rachel Denber, deputy Europe and Central Asia director at Human Rights Watch
The authorities are using the legislation on ‘foreign agents’ to persecute opposition figures, journalists and other people who disagree with them. Human rights activists suggest that the electoral commission will vet candidates before the next election with the help of the new register. […] Now it will be even easier to prevent opposition candidates from running, because even a transfer of a couple of thousand roubles or an interview with a foreign media outlet can get you labelled a ‘foreign agent.’OVD-Info
OVD-Info reported Aleksei Navalny is not receiving letters from his wife in the penal colony where he is imprisoned. The organisation noted that refusing to pass on letters is a common way of putting pressure on political prisoners.
Ye-e-e-s, Yulia Borisovna. No letter from you, again. Well, there we are. We met in a strange way and will part in a strange way! Your husband (for now).Aleksei Navalny in a letter to Yulia Navalnaya. Source: OVD-Info
Crimean Tatar activist Marlen Mustafaev has been sentenced to 17 years’ imprisonment on charges of organising the activities of a terrorist organisation and preparing the violent overthrow of the government, OVD-Info reported. According to the prosecution, Mustafaev held meetings of the Islamist party Hizb ut-Tahrir, which is banned in Russia. Prosecutions for involvement in Hizb ut-Tahrir, which carry severe sentences, are used in Crimea to persecute local opposition journalists and Crimean Tatar activists.
A number of experts believe that Hizb ut-Tahrir is wrongly labelled a terrorist organisation, because its members do not advocate violence and have not planned terrorist acts.OVD-Info
Reporters Without Borders (RSF) launched a new campaign to combat Russia’s propaganda and crackdown on journalism which, the organisation said, ‘continue to wreak havoc.’ The organisation has released a new campaign video devised and produced by the Paris-based advertising agency BETC to demonstrate the importance of journalism in combatting propaganda. Reporters Without Borders notes: ‘In the new video, Vladimir Putin’s mendacious speeches to the Russian people about the invasion of Ukraine are contrasted with images of reporters covering the war. Only the facts reported by journalists can thwart the Kremlin’s propaganda.’
Without journalists to cover the war in Ukraine, we would be powerless against disinformation and propaganda, we wouldn’t know whether the bombing of civilians in Ukraine was true or false, or whether the Bucha massacres really took place. After the world was stunned by the war in Ukraine, RSF wants to raise awareness about the other war being waged by the Kremlin, the information war.Christophe Deloire, RSF secretary-general
The law on ‘foreign agents,’ first introduced in 2012 in the regime’s reaction to widespread public protests over Putin’s return to power, characterises much about the regime. It was introduced on the basis of a lie – that it was similar to the US’ Foreign Principal Registration Act of 1938 that requires persons employed by agencies to disseminate propaganda on behalf of foreign powers in the United States to be registered. The term ‘foreign agent’ was also specifically selected by the authorities for this purpose because it is synonymous in Russian with the term ‘spy.’ The regime’s intention has been to brand independent activists as agents of foreign powers. As the law has been amended over the years, its definitions have become ever more vague and all-embracing in scope. Initially the law was assumed to apply exclusively to civil society organisations that received foreign funding and engaged in ‘political activity’ – and being designated a ‘foreign agent,’ the Constitutional Court insisted, was in no way discriminatory, merely a description of technical fact. Over the years, the subjects of the law’s application widened to include individuals, journalists and media outlets. There have been numerous absurdities over the years, not least the consistent use of the law to brand as ‘foreign agents’ organisations that received no foreign money at all and to classify virtually any expression of opinion as ‘political activity.’ As Human Rights Watch points out this week, under the law today essentially any person or organisation that ‘engages in civic activism or even expresses opinions about Russian policies or officials’ conduct could be designated a foreign agent.’ Indeed, the ‘foreign agent’ law is the regime’s ultimate response to the question Sergei Kovalev used to ask about civil society in Russia: ‘Who is boss in the house?’ The regime insists that on every question without exception it is boss. Along with the latest iteration of the ‘foreign agent’ legislation, two egregious violations of human rights this week point to this fact: the ill-treatment of the country’s most famous political prisoner, Aleksei Navalny, kept in punishment cells and denied letters from his wife; and the jailing on trumped up charges of terrorism of Crimean Tatar Marlen Mustafaev. Reporters Without Borders are certainly right to emphasise, with the launch of their new campaign, the importance of journalism in bringing truth to the Russian population about Russia’s war in Ukraine, as well as about developments in Russia itself. However, this is no easy task. This is, after all, the very truth that Russia’s ‘foreign agent’ law has been designed to suppress and keep out.