August 1, 2012
The time of general cleaning in the areas of civil rights and liberties, which at the time of Medvediev apparently spread too much, has come together with the era of the New President in March 2012. For the Russian non-governmental organizations and civil societies has just started no-holds-barred drive in the direction of democratic regression. Successive laws cut down every possible communication channels and prevent from action.
The starting point
On December 2011 a record number of protesters went out on the streets of Moscow, Saint Petersburg and Khabarovsk. Demonstrations intensified due to presidential elections in March 2012. The protestors supported by numerous NGOs wanted to show their resistance to Jedinaya Rossiya, the political party of Mr. Putin. They also wanted to show the change of the Russia which is coming closer to the European standards. Immediate consequences followed the events. Less than three months after the election of the new president major legislative changes affecting the freedom of assembly, freedom to associate, freedom of speech and freedom of information flow were introduced by the State Duma. Over the past two months at least four new laws that can have a negative impact on human rights in the country were adopted.
Step 1: freedom of assembly
In June 2012 President Putin signed the Act introducing amendments to the law on assemblies, signed in 2004, and the Russian Code of Administrative Violations. The work on the Act accelerated after the civic assembly was held in Moscow on 7 June 2012, the day when Mr Putin was elected the President of the Russian Federation. In the light of existing rules if the gathering is to have more than one participant the organizers must be reported to local authorities. The civic assembly may be prohibited if it endangers the safety of participants or is held in place detrimental to safety. In practice, the authorities have resorted to various pretexts to block the formal meetings.
Adopted amendments increase the penalties that are to be imposed on natural persons for organizing spontaneous meetings or acting against the prohibition in the size of 300 000 rubles (previously 1000 rubles). The penalty for illegal gathering initiated by legal entities (eg NGOs) will increase up to 1 million rubles. In case of exceeding the number of registered participants or the changes in the route of a march or demonstration the penalty may also be imposed. Furthermore, the Act introduces the penalty of restriction of liberty or imprisonment of protesters wearing masks.
Step 2: freedom of information flow
Undoubtedly, the Internet, the communication channel of demonstrators and NGOs seem to be the enemies of the authorities. It was on the Internet where after the December parliamentary elections the video showing electoral fraud circulated. As a result the authorities took power and introduced changes in this platform of social life as well.
On 12 July 2012, the State Duma adopted the Act on ‘protection of children from information detrimental to their health and development’, introducing a Register of prohibited websites. Websites as well as IP addresses included in the Register will be automatically blocked. The legislator did not specify what sort of information will get the page registered. For sure all content containing child pornography will get into the Register, but the body of authorities responsible for the Register will have the right to include any content that can potentially harm the children’s interest. The Act applies to all the users of the Internet without the right to appeal against the decision on including the website in the Registry. The Act was not even the subject of judicial review. It is likely that the information on the Web will be automatically filtered to capture unauthorized websites. In the act of protest, some websites, including the Russian Wikipedia, temporarily suspended its activities on the Internet.
How big a threat to freedom of speech such a register is know one knows yet. In fact in 2010 in Poland a similar regulation was about to be applied in case of the project on the gambling law. The only difference is that the Internet protests in Poland and NGOs were heard and the work on the legislation affecting the freedom of speech was abandoned. The law will enter into force on November 2011.
Step 3: freedom to associate
Two days after the adoption of the Act that might affect the freedom of speech the State Duma took under the scrutiny NGOs. On 13 July 2012 the Russian parliament enacted by law the rules concerning NGOs that receive grants from abroad and participate in political life. Such organizations will receive a status of foreign agents and are to be subject to strict control.
The Act states that such organizations within 90 days after being created will enter the special Register. All the materials issued by NGOs will have to have foreign agent label. Moreover, NGOs are required to submit reports on their activity every six months. For failing to meet requirements administrative penalty is to be imposed by law on NGOs of 30 000 rubles or criminal liability equal to the judgment of imprisonment of up to two years.
The Act needs only to be signed by the President, thought it seems that the issue is already settled. The Act bears negative consequences not only for Russia but may affect also countries of Central Asia. The Act was adopted within two weeks after the Assembly of the Council of Europe, of which Russia is a member, passed a resolution concerning defenders of human rights. The resolution calls on Member States to stop slandering human rights organizations which allegedly operate as extremists or foreign agents.
On July 16 members of Jedinaya Rossiya offered to extend the concept of an agent on mass media, which at least half of the income derives from foreign sources.
Step 4: Russia sues for defamation
December 7, 2011, Russia abolished criminal penalties for defamation, switching it into the code of administrative offenses. Having done that Russia became one of fourteen member countries of the Organization for Security and Co-operation in Europe (OSCE) which abolished the crime of defamation. Not for a long as on 12 July 2012 the State Duma readopted the criminalization of defamation in the first reading. Under the new law a person who has defamed may be sentenced to imprisonment for 5 years and a fine of up to 500,000 rubles. The act provoked an immediate protest from the Dunji Mijatovic, the Special Deputy on freedom of expression, the OSCE. The Act is against jurisprudence of the European Court of Human Rights, which indicates that criminal responsibility for the word is only allowed in the case of speech of hate or incitement to an offense. Its maintenance in the criminal codes causes ‘crippling effect’, preventing journalists and the media from reporting the activities of government and acting as a ‘public watchdog’. Without a doubt, the penalty for defamation which is introduced by the Act is one of the highest in Europe.
All the four Acts fall into a jigsaw puzzle. Putin’s Russia could no longer tolerate the demonstrators on the streets, officials being criticized on the Internet or civic organizations that are the reminder of democracy standards and fundamental rights. International organizations alert, including Navi Pillay, the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights, Thorbjorn Jagland, Secretary General of the Council of Europe or the Human Rights Commissioner of the Council of Europe. Is the international opinion in a position to stop such a serious democratic recourse? It seems that for the second term Putin plans to ride in the opposite direction to the democratization and human rights reform, the ride that international resistance fails to stop. But are we willing to have such a neighbor in the closest proximity of EU?
Dominika Bychawska-Siniarska, Irmina Byzdra “Europe of Human Rights”
Author : Europe of Human Rights