By Courtney Dobson, Country Specialist for Russia at Amnesty International USA.
There is a clear juxtaposition between Putin’s ambition for Russia to be a superpower in the global arena and the disintegration of human rights and civil society at home. In recent months, Putin may have gained diplomatic points in the global arena for commanding the world’s attention to its aggressive activities both in eastern Ukraine and its military action in Syria. However this grandstanding on the world stage should not be cause for distraction; the attack on Russian civil society continues, as a single mom and shop assistant from the Sverdlovsk region of Russia has been charged with inciting ethnic hatred for sharing links on social media.
In the summer of 2014 Yekaterina Vologzheninova shared on social media with online friends some links to material she found on the internet that appeared to contradict the government’s official narrative of events in eastern Ukraine as well as the annexation of Crimea. Whilst Yekaterina may have assumed her re-posted content would be accessible only to her registered friends, Russian authorities were also following Yekaterina’s online activity. A few months later in December 2014, her apartment was searched by law enforcement officials and she was taken to the police station for questioning. Yekaterina then learned that a criminal case against her had been opened for “publicly inciting hatred or enmity as well as denigrating human dignity”, which relates to Article 282, part 1 of the Russian Criminal Code. What is more, Yekaterina has been added to a government list of terrorism supporters. Yekkaterina’s trial began on October 27 and, if convicted of the charges, she faces up to five years’ imprisonment – a severe punishment for simply raising questions amongst online acquaintances about the government’s official narrative over its policies in eastern Ukraine and the Crimea.
Yekaterina’s case is part of the broader crackdown on freedom of expression, assembly and association in Russia today. Since Putin’s re-election as President in 2012, a series of laws aimed at eliminating any form of dissent to those in power have been introduced. Independent civil society organizations (CSOs) have faced growing pressure under the so-called ‘foreign agents law’. Under this law, any organization receiving foreign funding and undertaking loosely defined ‘political activities’ must register as ‘organizations fulfilling the functions of a foreign agent’ – a label that is steeped in negative connotation, and is associated with Cold War-era espionage. The Foreign Agents Law has paved the way for authorities to arbitrarily harass and disrupt the work of CSOs and has effectively shrunk the size of Russia’s civil society. Meanwhile mainstream media has become noticeably less pluralistic and an increasing degree of self-censorship is evident amongst media outlets.
The Law on ‘Information, Information Technologies and Information Protection’, also introduced in 2012 has undermined freedom of expression by increasing internet censorship. This, along with a change to the definition of treason in the criminal code has broadened the scope for the government to identify a critic as a traitor.
The Putin regime has placed high priority on the rule of law. However with laws that are simultaneously restrictive to civil liberties and vague, it is impossible for civil society to flourish. Whilst there is merit in having law-abiding citizens, the restrictions introduced under Putin create a scenario in which the law is applied in an arbitrary and heavy-handed way. The senior attorney assistant for Sverdlovsk region explained the charges against Yekaterina Vologzhninova thusly: “Simply copying or sharing links to [extremist] posts is already a crime,” and “Therefore, for committing this crime, the woman is being prosecuted.” Under the guise of the struggle against extremism, Yekaterina is being unreasonably targeted and her case serves no meaningful purpose than to weaken peoples resolve to share or express an opinion that does not correspond with the official narrative.
Whilst the attack on Yekaterina’s right to freedom of speech may not be unique in Russia today, what is startling about her case is the extent to which her private actions have come under close scrutiny from the authorities. Unlike many of the cases reported, Yekaterina is not an activist, rather she is simply a single mom who works in a shop based in Sverdlovsk – a region far from the Kremlin.
The broader implications of this case cannot be ignored. In a few years, Russia will hold a federal election. In the current climate in which individuals’ rights to freedom of expression, assembly and association are being restricted, the Russian people are losing their right to influence the direction their country will take. Everyone has the right to seek, receive and impart information and ideas without fear or interference. This right is important for the personal development and dignity of every individual and is vital for the fulfillment of other human rights. The internet has opened up new possibilities for individuals and groups to seek and share information and ideas. Yet in Russia, the internet is also a space where freedom of expression is being undermined.
As the world is focused on Russia, it is time to shed light on the contradiction between what is going on inside the country at the grassroots level in which individuals’ fundamental rights and freedoms are not being respected and not be distracted by Russia’s recent grandstanding on the world stage.
Join with Amnesty international and write immediately in Russian or in your own language and call on the Russian authorities to:
- Close the criminal case against Yekaterina Vologzheninova;
- Acknowledge that Yekaterina has exercised her right to freedom of expression and she has not committed an internationally recognizable criminal offense;
- Respect and protect individuals’ right to freedom of expression.
Courtney Dobson is a Country Specialist for Russia at Amnesty International USA. She has previously worked in the NGO sector in Russia.