Oleg Orlov: Censorship threatens the activities of NGOs branded as ‘foreign agents’

17 November 2020

an interview with Oleg Orlov, board member at Memorial Human Rights Centre, by Deutsche Welle

Source: Moscow Helsinki Group [original source: Deutsche Welle]

The Russian State Duma may  tighten legislation on NGOs on the “foreign agent” list to the point of censoring their programmes. Reporters from Deutsche Welle spoke about this with Oleg Orlov, a board member of the Memorial Human Rights Centre and laureate of the Moscow Helsinki Prize.

The law on nongovernmental organisations acting as “foreign agents” was passed by the State Duma in the summer of 2012 against the backdrop of massive protests in Moscow. This is what the authorities began to call NGOs with foreign financing that are engaged in political activity. True, in time the interpretation of the term “political activity” was expanded to such a degree that HIV-service nongovernmental organisations came to fall under this rubric.

The bill the government introduced to the State Duma last week proposes that “foreign agent” NGOs inform the authorities in advance of their programme of operation and events. Moreover, the document forbids such NGOs from having offices in residential housing. If the bill is approved, it will affect such well-known human rights organisations as Memorial, Public Verdict, and Golos.

DW: On the Memorial website, the bill is called “the gateway to the hell of unlimited tyranny.”

Oleg Orlov: Any law is merely an opportunity for its implementation. After that comes practical law enforcement. Take the law on “foreign agents.” Our courts apply it as a bludgeon to destroy undesirable NGOs because the law is invested with an unlimitedly broad understanding of foreign financing. All it takes is for one employee of an organisation to receive money from foreign sources for the entire organisation to be considered financed from abroad.

DW: What will change in Memorial’s work if the bill passes?

Oleg Orlov: The language there is very elastic, as it is in so many Russian laws of recent years. First of all, we are going to have to submit information in advance about whatever events and programmes we intend to conduct. But most important is that the Justice Ministry will be able to issue a reasoned decision prohibiting any of the programmes we declare.

What is a reasoned decision? There is no list of grounds for prohibiting programmes. Based on experience, we can assume that they will be interpreting this point of law however it suits them. As of that moment, the Justice Ministry will be able to prohibit any type of our activity. Whether it will act in this way or not, we don’t know, but they will then have that opportunity. Figuratively speaking, they are introducing censorship. We submit a programme in advance, and the Justice Ministry can prohibit something in advance.

DW: Might it be said that even now the Justice Ministry is interfering substantially in your work?

Oleg Orlov: At this moment there is no direct interference. However, certain types of activity are forbidden us. Even though in 2014 the Constitutional Court resolved that the law on “foreign agent” NGOs does not assume any obstacles in the directions we choose for our activities or our sources of financing.

Nonetheless, we are barred from participating in public oversight commissions for places of incarceration, from observing elections, and from carrying out anti-corruption expert analyses of regulatory acts. Moreover, we are not registered as a socially oriented organisation performing socially significant services for the population. So we cannot lay claim to money from the Russian budget.

DW: Previously you linked the persecution of human rights NGOs in Russia to political events – the Maidan in Ukraine, the mass protests of 2011-2012 in Russia. Right now is there also a link to politics, or is this just the ball still rolling?

Oleg Orlov: Yes, the ball still rolling. The screws are being tightened inside the country as Russia’s relations with the outside world deteriorate. The more Russia becomes a besieged fortress in the consciousness of our leaders, the more ferociously do they start fighting some alleged fifth column inside the country.

DW: What legal suits are being brought against Memorial right now?

Oleg Orlov: All of last year was marked by new fines. Law enforcement agencies searched out our materials on the Internet and declared that we had not included the “foreign agents” label. Frequently, publications we didn’t even post were ascribed to us. We lost nearly all our cases in court. This year there’s been no new pressure, but now there’s this bill.

All these laws have so-called latent consequences. They aren’t prescribed in the law, but they flow directly from it. There are tacit recommendations to officials to cease any interaction with “foreign agent” NGOs. If previously officials themselves attended our seminars and rendered us assistance, then now they are doing everything they can to impede us.

Or take Memorial’s Russian history competition for schoolchildren. The wild, outright lie from the media is the least of it. After that, officials from local education ministries and agents of the FSB [Federal Security Service] and police counter-extremism centres went to the schools and de facto intimidated the teachers, pupils, and parents. As good as saying, “And do you know they’re foreign agents? Do you realize they’re acting against Russia?”

DW: Are you learning to work with that? Or are you having to give up on programmes?

Oleg Orlov: If we’re talking about pupils, teachers and children, they’re not all so easily intimidated. And when a child or parent can tell the FSB to go you-know-where, theoretically speaking, then that’s good. That means that our country is seeing new citizens appearing, citizens who understand the meaning of the phrase “human rights.” And in these conditions we can continue to work, it’s just going to be harder.

Translated by Marian Schwartz

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