SOVA Center’s statement for the session on “Promoting and protecting human rights and fundamental freedoms” at ODIHR 30th anniversary conference in Warsaw on October 14-15, 2021
SOVA (15.10.2021) – https://bit.ly/3nzvqxS – SOVA Center for Information and Analysis, whose activity is focused on monitoring and analysis in the field of nationalism and xenophobia and Russia, relations between the state and religious organizations in Russia and misuse of anti-extremism and counter-terrorism laws in the country, is deeply concerned by the ongoing deterioration of freedom of expression, freedom of association and freedom of belief in the country.
Vague and problematic definition of “extremism” in Russian law gives the authorities the latitude to ban a wide range of organizations, be they political or religious, as extremist, and we see a growing number of organizations on the extremists’ list.
Simultaneously, those deemed “involved in extremist activities” face exceeding deprivation of their civil and political rights. Thus, a new law was introduced in anticipation of the elections prohibiting those “involved” in activities of extremist or terrorist organizations from being election candidates. The ban issued against Alexei Navalny’s organizations – which is patently improper, since it does not fit even the vague formulas of the law on extremism – provided the authorities with the opportunity to exclude the majority of the Russian opposition from the parliamentary election process and this opportunity was seized in full scale.
The Russian law on extremism criminalizes any activities which can be seen as analogous to activities of a banned organization. While Navalny’s supporters are on the threshold of criminal prosecutions for their opposition activities seen by the authorities as continuation of activities of extremist organizations, the adherents of “non-traditional” religious organizations have been facing such prosecutions on a massive scale. As of October, 2021, the number of Jehovah’s Witnesses prosecuted in Russia for continuation of activities of their religious communities banned in 2017 as extremist, reached 547; the believers, including the elderly and disabled people, face long prison terms or restrictions of freedom and large fines. The prosecutions against Hizb ut-Tahrir Islamic party followers for participation in a terrorist organization are also ongoing. Though the party has never been involved in any violence in Russia, hundreds of Muslims all over the country, including Crimean Tatars, get prison terms of up to 24 years for involvement in Hizb ut-Tahrir.
SOVA Center reports hundreds of criminal convictions for online public statements a year, nearly 5000 thousand people punished a year under Code of Administrative Offenses for online publications and hundreds of thousands cases of blocking various banned content yearly.
The Russian legislation on internet control has expanded dramatically during the last three years.
Thus, at the very end of 2020, the law on mandatory filtering of inappropriate content on social networks was signed. According to the law, the authorities grant the status of a social network to services with a monthly audience of more than 500 thousand Russian users. Social networks are obligated to independently monitor information, the dissemination of which is banned in Russia and which is subject to extrajudicial blocking (including information that contains calls for mass riots, carrying out extremist activities or participation in unpermitted rallies, as well as alleged fakes, materials of “undesirable organizations” and links to them and statements “offensive for the authorities and the society”), accept complaints about such content and block it. In case of non-compliance social networks are to be punished with huge fines (from 1/10 to 1/5 of the proceeds, but no less than 8 million rubles for legal entities). In addition to the above-listed requirements for content removal or blocking, social networks are required to make sure that their resources are not used to violate the electoral legislation restrictions or “to defame a citizen or certain categories of citizens” based on their belonging to a certain group, including their place of work and political convictions. As of September, 2021, according to Russian courts, foreign companies should pay fines of about 130 million rubles (about one and a half million euro) in total for failure to remove the illegal content.
Simultaneously, a law was introduced to prevent social networks from censoring information that comes from pro-government Russian media. The owner of an information resource used by Russian citizens and legal entities is recognized as involved in human rights violations if the resource restricts dissemination of socially significant information in Russia “on the basis of nationality, language, origin, property ownership or job title, profession, place of residence or work, attitude toward religion and (or) in connection with the introduction by foreign states of political or economic sanctions against the Russian Federation, citizens of the Russian Federation or Russian legal entities,” or restricts the right of Russian citizens to freely seek, receive, transmit, produce and distribute information by any legal means. The sanctions for non-compliance also imply huge fines.
If owners of foreign online resources fail to comply with the requirements of the Russian authorities, the state agency on telecom may restrict access to their resources completely or partially. Partial restriction in this context can mean slowing down the Internet traffic. The traffic may be slowed by means of equipment installed by Russian internet providers under the “sovereign internet” law (2019) which allowed the authorities to manage the internet traffic in the country themselves, circumventing the providers.
Practically speaking, according to the new legislation, social networks must delete whatever the authorities think has to be deleted, and cannot delete whatever the authorities think should not be deleted. That is an extremely radical approach to web content regulation.
To the participating states:
We believe that the legislation and practice of countering terrorism and extremism (in terms of national legislation) need to be brought in line with the international human rights standards.
The legal definition of extremism in national legislations, if present, must be revised so that this concept refers only to actions connected in one way or another with the use of violence. The definitions of terrorist and extremist activity in the relevant laws should be as clear as possible to eliminate the chance for an expansive interpretation.
Freedom of conscience and belief as such should not be subject to additional restrictions within the framework of anti-terrorism or anti-extremist legislation, despite the fact that, in general, restrictions on civil rights and freedoms in order to protect the state security and the public security are permissible.
Criminal law articles relating to public statements should criminalize only statements that call for violence. Incitement to hatred based on group characteristics – such as race, ethnicity, religion, etc – may be an exception. The list of protected characteristics should not include any vague criteria, as the lack of clarity leads to abuse.
In any case, the wording and application of the relevant articles of the Criminal Code must meet the threshold of public danger of the statements in question. Six part criteria presented in the Rabat Plan of Action can be used as an example.
Not only the states but also some civil society organizations often insist that online platforms delete all the undesirable content. But such content is too immense to be properly monitored and filtered. As a result, the online platforms delete plenty of content basing on absurd or formal criteria and fail to eliminate plenty of aggressive content. Supposedly, the stakeholders should look for consensus and make their anticipations more balanced and realistic.
ODIHR could renew and mediate a constructive dialogue between the participating states in all diversity of their anticipations and the global online platforms to elaborate more balanced and effective policies of online content regulation.