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Freedom House Condemns Russia’s Attempt to Restrict Free Expression Online
Freedom House expresses grave concern over a law being considered in the Russian Duma that would allow prosecutors to block websites on their own authority and without court order. If passed, prosecutors would have wide latitude to block sites alleged to have postings encouraging participation in extremist activities, unsanctioned public events, or mass disorder, among other causes.
Russian authorities have repeatedly used vaguely defined charges of “extremism” and “inciting mass disorder” to stifle or punish civil society activists and independent organizations. Since authorities introduced legal changes in 2006, dozens of activists have been charged with extremism for criticizing the authorities or publishing controversial materials. Recent cases suggest that if prosecutors are authorized to determine which materials are “extremist,” civil society groups and activists will be targeted with specious accusations that their websites contain extremism materials. Thousands of documents are already on a government list of extremist materials and access to them is blocked or prohibited across the country.
Charges of organizing or participating in mass disorder have led to formal charges against 26 people who participated in a May 2012 demonstration against fraudulent elections. Many of those charged in the Bolotnaya Square case have been detained for extended periods. The charges and arrests came shortly after the Duma introduced additional restrictions on already limited freedoms of assembly and association, making it more difficult for Russians to receive permission for public demonstrations and harshly penalizing organizers and participants for their activism. The proposed blocking of websites appears aimed at preventing activists from using social media to mobilize people to exercise their fundamental rights.
The Russian government already blocks large amounts of online content. In addition to the list of extremist materials, existing authority to block websites deemed “harmful to children” has been widely applied and led to the temporary blocking of popular sites including Facebook and Gazeta.ru.
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