MOSCOW, Russia — On Aug.1, the Russian blogosphere became a little smaller. Bloggers with a daily readership of 3,000 or more were required to submit their personal information to the Russian government. Their sites will be subject to the laws monitoring mass media; laws which critics call vague and “hard to enforce consistently.” Many are concerned that the new “blogger law” aims to restrict freedom of speech. The law evinces a pattern in Russian human rights violations: When people are alone, they can say anything at all. When they have an audience, problems arise.
Section One, Chapter Two, Article 17 of the Constitution of the Russian Federation reads, “The basic rights and liberties in conformity with the commonly recognized principles and norms of the international law shall be recognized and guaranteed in the Russian Federation and under this Constitution.” That “international law” stipulates freedom of speech as part of the U.N.’s Universal Declaration of Human Rights. Russia’s constitution would seem pretty liberal then, and it’s true that there simply isn’t a law forbidding people to lament the state of Medvedev’s hair, or his policy.
However, violations of freedom become obvious in two cases: in protests and in media.
In 2012, the Russian parliament passed a law that penalized unsanctioned demonstrations with heavy fines. Participating in such a demonstration could cost a protester as much as $9,000, when most Russians’ yearly salary averages $8,600. The fines can be avoided if protesters first clear their event with authorities; however, putting potential criticisms of government in the government’s hands has caused concern.
A year after the 2012 parliament ruling, libel was criminalized for a second time. The new laws do not prescribe prison terms, but the fines are, again, exorbitant. According to Human Rights Watch, media outlets that relay “libelous statements” are fined up to $61,000. If someone is “falsely accused of a grave crime,” the fine more than doubles to $153,000. It is unclear how many Russians citizens sleep better at night, knowing that their carefully crafted public reputations are protected.
The Russian government has abused these laws, accusing independent networks and journalists of crimes they did not commit. Oftentimes, punishments do not fit the crime.
Founder, Tikhon Dzyadko, describes Rain TV as providing “unbiased information” and “rigorous journalism.” In 2010, during Putin’s second term as Prime Minister, there was a great appetite for straight up facts, for unedited, live interviews and broadcasts. Rain’s audience grew so large that the program secured a spot on most networks.
When Rain TV aired a debate on the siege of Leningrad in January, nobody expected backlash. Would it have been better to surrender the city to prevent loss of life? It’s a question, Dzyadko says, that’s even appeared in textbooks.
Rain TV was suddenly dropped by the majority of its networks which cited the “offensive” debate while privately explaining pressure from the Kremlin. Tax and labor inspectors came. MPs asked about funding. None of the staff members faced criminal charges, but their operation was utterly shut down.
In 2013, opposition media-outlet The New Times published an article by journalist Zoya Svetova, accusing two judges of plagiarism. The judges sued the outlet and Svetova, who where required to pay $15,000 and $3,000 respectively. The court case may have seemed fair, if the judges in question had shown up for the hearing.
In February of 2014, 200 protesters were detained by police for involvement in an anti-Putin protest. Seven people were convicted of “mass rioting” and given up to four years in prison. One of the seven activists was sentenced to two and a half years for throwing a lemon at a police officer.
According to the writings of the Russia government, Russian citizens have the right to “free speech.” According to the actions of the Russian government, Russian citizens have free speech if they leave their audiences and their lemons at home.
– Olivia Kostreva