While the constitution provides for freedom of speech and press, the government increasingly restricted those rights. The government instituted a significant number of new laws that restrict both freedom of speech and press. Regional and local authorities used procedural violations and restrictive or vague legislation to detain, harass, or prosecute persons who criticized the government. The government exercised greater editorial control over state-controlled media than previously, creating a media landscape in which most citizens were exposed only to government-approved narratives. Significant government pressure on independent media constrained coverage of numerous issues, especially the situation in Ukraine, LGBT issues, the environment, criticism of local or federal leadership, as well as secessionist or federalist topics. Self-censorship in television and the print media was reportedly increasingly widespread, particularly on issues critical of the government or its policies. The government used direct ownership or ownership by large private companies with government links to control or influence major national media and regional media outlets, especially television.
Freedom of Speech: Government-controlled media frequently used terms such as “traitor,” “foreign agent,” and “fifth column” to describe individuals expressing views critical of or different from government policy, leading to a climate intolerant of dissent.
A number of public figures were attacked after making public commentary that questioned the government’s policies. On August 29, after making public his investigations of reports of the country’s military involvement in Ukraine, Pskov opposition politician and journalist Lev Shlosberg was attacked from behind while walking to a meeting with colleagues. He lost consciousness almost immediately, but his unidentified attackers continued to beat him for several minutes with a blunt object, and he was hospitalized in serious condition. According to press reports, Shlosberg indicated that the investigation into the attack was postponed due to a lack of suspects.
Many new laws criminalize certain types of expression. On May 5, the president signed a law imposing heavy fines on anyone found to be trying to rehabilitate Nazism or denigrate the country’s World War II record. On May 23, the president signed a law toughening punishments for advocacy of separatism. On July 1, the president signed new amendments to the law on extremism that broadened the definition of extremist speech and increased fines and prison sentences. On October 15, the president signed a law prohibiting profanity in books, films, music, theater, and blogs. On November 5, the president signed a law banning the display of symbols of organizations that cooperated with fascists.
Authorities invoked the 2012 law banning “propaganda” of nontraditional sexual relations to minors to restrict the free speech of LGBT persons and their supporters. For example, on February 27, Elena Klimova, founder of the website Deti 404 (Children 404), an online forum for Russian-speaking LGBT teens to write openly and anonymously about their daily lives and hardships, was brought to trial for allegedly violating the law against homosexual propaganda. Klimova created Deti 404 in March 2013 due to concern for the effects that the law would have on young persons. In addition to providing a refuge for teens, the site carried information for adults about discrimination that LGBT teens faced. Based on the material on Deti 404, authorities charged Klimova with breaking the law, although the court at her trial found no evidence of “gay propaganda” in her activities and therefore did not find her guilty under the statute. Authorities also prohibited, as evidence of homosexual propaganda, a documentary, also called Deti 404, detailing Klimova’s life in Nizhny Tagil, where she was forced to resign from her job as an editor at a local newspaper. On November 7, three police officers visited Klimova’s home. Three days later Klimova received a message informing her that the Federal Service for Oversight of Communication and Information Technology (Roskomnadzor) had determined that Deti 404 violated the “gay propaganda” ban.
Authorities continued to misuse the country’s expansive definition of extremism as a tool to stifle dissent. The Ministry of Justice continued to expand its list of “extremist” materials to include 2,442 items as of September 22, an increase of more than 300 items from the same date in 2013.
By law authorities may close any organization that a court determines to be extremist, including media outlets and websites, and the organization cannot challenge the court’s decision. Roskomnadzor routinely issued warnings to newspapers and internet sources suspected of publishing “extremist” materials. Two warnings in one year were enough to initiate a closure lawsuit. For example, on October 10, Roskomnadzor issued a warning to the independent publication Novaya Gazeta for its publication of an article by Yulia Latynina that focused on the connection of Russian history and culture with the West. The government warning stated that the publication contained statements that fell under the law on extremist activities. Human rights groups reported such intimidation encouraged journalists and editors, who were only rarely prosecuted directly, to censor themselves.
Press Freedoms: The government increasingly restricted press freedom. The government or state-owned or state-controlled companies directly owned more than 60 percent of the country’s 45,000 registered local newspapers and periodicals. The federal or local governments or progovernment oligarchs completely or partially owned approximately 66 percent of the 2,500 television stations, including all six national channels. Government-owned media outlets often received preferential benefits, such as rent-free occupancy of government-owned buildings. At many government-owned or controlled outlets, the state increasingly dictated editorial policy.
During the year the government also purchased a greater share of major outlets across media platforms. On September 16, the government-owned Mail.ru announced it had acquired the popular social networking site, VKontakte.
New laws placed financial restrictions on the media business. On July 21, the president signed a law prohibiting many television companies that were not owned by the state from funding themselves through advertising. On September 26, the president signed a law, effective in 2017, that would limit the share of foreign ownership in a media company to 20 percent.
Independent news outlets running stories critical of the government often faced state retaliation for such coverage. On May 19, Roskomnadzor threatened to close TV2, one of the few remaining independent media outlets in Tomsk, in response to the television station’s supposed inability to provide sustained local programming. According to local media reports, Roskomnadzor’s allegation came as a shock to TV2, since the station had been off-air since mid-April due to a breakdown at a local broadcasting facility. TV2’s editor claimed the threat was an effort by Roskomnadzor to punish the station for being an independent voice on local issues.
During the year the government continued to pressure the leadership of the country’s leading independent news outlets that exposed government abuses. Government pressure continued on the independent radio station Ekho Moskvy, including on its chief editor Aleksey Venedictov, who faced opposition from the station’s majority stakeholder Gazprom media in relation to the station’s independent editorial policies.
Many newspapers ensured their financial viability by agreeing to various types of “support contracts” with government ministries, under which the newspapers agreed to provide positive coverage of government officials and policies in news stories. Absent direct government support, independent news publications reported difficulty attracting advertising and securing financial viability, since advertisers feared retaliation if their brands became linked to publications that criticized the government.
Government targeting of independent liberal-leaning TV Dozhd persisted during the year. On January 26, the channel ran a controversial web and live-television survey that asked viewers if Leningrad should have surrendered to the invading German army during World War II in order to “save hundreds of thousands of lives.” Dozhd’s editors removed the poll within a half-hour and apologized for what they claimed was incorrect wording. The St. Petersburg legislature requested Prosecutor General Yuriy Chaika to conduct an investigation into “provocative material posted on the website of the Dozhd television channel” and to take appropriate measures, including closing the station. On January 29, the largest cable television providers dropped the channel, reportedly under pressure from authorities. In March, Dozhd reported it would need to close in May due to related financial difficulties. Legislation passed in July, often called the “Dozhd law,” prohibits advertising on pay television stations and forced the channel to increase its subscription fees by nearly 500 percent. Dozhd was forced to leave its downtown-Moscow studio in October and was unexpectedly evicted from its temporary location in late November, at the same time that Roskomnadzor issued a public complaint that the organization had not properly reregistered its address after moving. The channel remained without a formal location or consistent source of funding at year’s end.
According to the Glasnost Defense Fund and other NGOs, authorities used the media’s widespread dependence on the government for access to property, printing, and distribution services to discourage critical reporting. They reported approximately 90 percent of the print media relied on state-controlled entities for paper, printing, and distribution services and that many television stations were forced to rely on the government for access to the airwaves and office space. The Glasnost Defense Fund also reported that officials continued to manipulate the price of printing at state-controlled publishing houses to pressure private media rivals.
According to the Committee to Protect Journalists (CPJ), in the months leading up to the Winter Olympics in February, the government pressured regional media in southern parts of the country not to cover sensitive Olympic-related topics, such as the exploitation of migrant workers, environmental destruction, and forced evictions. In a January 28 report, the CPJ noted that it was common for the information department of the Sochi city administration to censor Sochi media that received government financing. The censorship included the government’s reviewing programming before it was broadcast, prohibiting articles, or editing broadcasts that could be considered embarrassing to authorities, and allowing only the local crew of the government-run All-Russia State Television and Radio Broadcasting Company access to cover governmental events or other sensitive issues. According to the CPJ report, local journalists noted the company often staged interviews with individuals speaking scripted lines, which it passed to viewers as ordinary Sochi residents expressing their views.
The organization Environmental Watch of the North Caucasus utilized its website World-Sochi to document environmental abuses related to Olympic preparations, including water pollution, deforestation, and mudslides, identified by Environmental Watch of the North Caucasus and other environmental activists. According to environmental news group Ecoreporter.ru, the government consistently pressured the organization to stop its watchdog activities, with local authorities shutting down press conferences and the FSB and the Internal Affairs Ministry’s Center for Combatting Extremism pressuring individual organization members to stop their activities.
During the year authorities used the country’s law prohibiting the “propaganda” of nontraditional sexual orientations to minors to warn or prosecute media outlets that presented LGBT persons in a positive or neutral manner. On January 30, Aleksandr Suturin, editor in chief of the Khabarovsk regional newspaper Molodoy Dalnevostochnik, was fined 50,000 rubles ($847) for publishing an article in September 2013 about a geography teacher and gay rights activist who stated that he was pressured into quitting his job and assaulted by neo-Nazis because of his sexuality.
Violence and Harassment: As of December 1, the Glasnost Defense Fund reported the following actions against journalists during the year: five killings, 52 attacks, 107 detentions by law enforcement, 200 prosecutions, 29 threats against journalists, and 15 politically motivated firings, as well as two attacks on media offices.
On August 5, the body of Nalchik-based correspondent Timur Kuashev, an affiliate of Caucasian Knot and the magazine Dosh was found in a wooded area near the suburb of Khasania, the day after he had gone missing following threats from law enforcement authorities. The Dosh editorial staff claimed Kuashev had been kidnapped from his home on August 4, but at the time of his burial, the results of an autopsy to determine the cause of his death were unknown. According to the media outlet’s editor, Abdulla Duduyev, Kuashev was under surveillance and had regularly received threats for his coverage of alleged human rights abuses by security forces in the course of antiterrorism operations. At year’s end no investigation had been opened into the killing.
There were no updates in the investigations into the 2013 deaths of journalists Akhmednabi Akhmednabiyev and Gadzhimurad Kamalov.
Often, when cases of violence against journalists involved government officials, the defendants were not prosecuted to the full extent of the law. For example, on January 16, the City Court of Tulun in Irkutsk Oblast found the former deputy mayor, Gennadiy Zhigarev, guilty of stabbing to death journalist Aleksandr Khodzinskiy in July 2013 but sentenced him to 22 months of house arrest instead of the minimum prison sentence of six years for murder prescribed by law.
Reports of physical assaults on journalists increased along with an increase in investigative reporting on the situation in Ukraine, according to NGO reports. On September 18, unknown persons attacked a BBC news crew in Astrakhan after they recorded interviews with families of the country’s soldiers who reportedly had been killed in an unacknowledged military intervention in Ukraine. The assailants beat the crew members and smashed their video camera. The BBC crew contended that during the four-hour interview with police following the attack, someone further tampered with the camera and computer equipment in their car outside the police station.
At an April 4 hearing on the charges initiated in 2013 against journalist Sergey Reznik--including insulting a public official, bribery and deliberately misleading authorities--a Rostov court upheld Reznik’s 18-month sentence. As of year’s end, Reznik’s legal team was in the process of filing an appeal with the Rostov Regional Court as well as the ECHR. Reporters without Borders noted numerous flaws in the case against him.
On February 6, Judge Valentina Levashova of the Basmannyy District Court of Moscow dismissed a motion by journalist Oleg Kashin to reopen a case against the FSB and Investigative Committee regarding their failure to investigate the 2010 attempt on his life. Levashova noted in her decision that the Investigative Committee’s two years of inaction on the case were not inconsistent with the national criminal code and that Kashin had no grounds on which to bring a suit against the FSB.
On June 9, a Moscow court convicted five men for the 2006 murder of journalist Anna Politkovskaya and sentenced them to between 12 and 20 years in prison. Despite these convictions and the 2012 conviction of Dmitriy Pavlyuchenkov for organizing the murder, the identity of the person who ordered Politkovskaya’s killing remained unknown.
There was no progress in establishing accountability in a number of high-profile killings of journalists, including the 2004 killing of Paul Klebnikov and the 2009 killing of Natalia Estemirova.
Journalists and bloggers who uncovered various forms of government malfeasance also faced harassment, either in the form of direct threats to their physical safety or threats to their security or livelihood, often through legal prosecution. For example, on March 3, officers from the Tomsk Investigative Department conducted a raid on the office of well-known opposition activist and reporter Andrey Volkov, supposedly to search for “extremist materials.” Both Volkov and his supporters publicly stated their belief that the raid and previous online surveillance of Volkov was in response to his February article in novo-tomsk.ru describing fraudulent investigative tactics in a case against three local youths accused of assaulting a prosecutor.
After six months of house arrest for alleged possession of drugs found during a routine traffic stop, authorities notified Sochi-based independent journalist Nikolai Yarst on March 17 that the case against him had been dismissed. Many human rights groups and other local journalists believed that police planted the drugs in the car in retaliation for Yarst’s critical reporting on a local scandal that implicated members of the Sochi police.
Censorship or Content Restrictions: The government continued to use legislation and decrees to curtail media freedom.
On March 12, Roskomnadzor, the state media authority, issued a warning against the popular independent media website Lenta.ru, which it accused of spreading “extremist” content after the editorial staff chose to publish an interview with Andrei Tarasenko, a leader of Right Sector, a Ukrainian nationalist group. Editor in chief Galina Timchenko and general director Yulia Minder were dismissed the same day by Aleksandr Mamut, the owner of Lenta.ru’s parent company. Sources close to the news organization noted that these actions were taken in connection with government attempts to control the website’s editorial policies.
On November 1, Roskomnadzor issued a warning pursuant to extremism legislation to Ekho Moskvy, the independent radio station, over a program it broadcast that gave an account of fighting near the Donetsk airport in Ukraine. Without elaboration the warning accused Ekho Moskvy of propagating “information which justifies the practice of war crimes.”
During the year courts used vague extremism laws to censor religious materials of minority religious groups. On January 13, a Kurgan court declared a series of Jehovah’s Witnesses pamphlets to constitute extremist material. The court noted that the pamphlets such as How to Achieve Happiness in Life and How to Develop a Close Relationship With God discriminated against individuals who did not belong to the organization. The prosecutor’s office declared that analyses by linguistic experts had concluded the brochures contained propaganda that promoted the superiority of the Jehovah’s Witnesses and denigrated other faiths as false (see the Department of State’s International Religious Freedom Report at 2009-2017.state.gov/j/drl/irf/rpt/).
The government utilized these same antiextremism laws to censor an array of online content (see section 2.a., Internet Freedom).
Officials or unidentified individuals sometimes used force or took other extralegal measures to prevent the circulation of publications critical of government officials. The Glasnost Defense Fund reported that, as of September 1, officials made 29 attempts to seize or prevent distribution of publications. Utilizing the Law on Extremism as grounds, the government confiscated numerous materials from local and independent publishers. For example, on March 14, Kalmykia police detained the editor of Modern Kalmykia, Valeriy Badmayev, who was taken to the city police department and held overnight for allegedly threatening a local law enforcement official. After his arrest police confiscated the most recent print edition of Modern Kalmykia on the pretext that it contained “extremist materials,” although authorities never specified which materials they considered extremist.
The Glasnost Defense Fund reported 51 instances of government interference with internet publications by December 1, compared with 44 instances for the entire year in 2013. There was a notable increase in the average number of instances of government interference in March and April, corresponding with Russia’s invasion and purported “annexation” of Ukraine’s Crimean peninsula
On May 16, authorities in Kirov returned a print run of 80,000 newsletters created by supporters of opposition activist Aleksey Navalnyy that they seized in May 2013. After a year of examining the newsletters, authorities concluded that there was no extremist content in them.
During the year there were reports of courts forbidding high-profile journalists and bloggers from engaging in journalistic activity. On January 9, a court in Yekaterinburg issued a two-year suspended sentence to journalist and founder of ura.ru, Aksana Panova, for extortion. In addition to the suspended jail sentence, the court prohibited Panova from engaging in journalistic activities for two years. Local media and human rights activists claimed this media gag order resulted from Panova’s work to highlight government ineffectiveness as well as her close relationship to the mayor of Yekaterinburg, Yevgeny Roizman, a figure at times at odds with the government.
Libel Laws/National Security: Officials at all levels used their authority, sometimes publicly, to restrict the work of journalists and bloggers who criticized them, including taking legal action for alleged slander or libel. The law places limits on free expression on national security grounds, notably in statutes against extremism and treason.
Opposition activist and prominent anticorruption blogger Aleksey Navalnyy was the subject of multiple libel-related proceedings for statements he posted online. On April 22, the Babushkinskiy District Court decided one libel case in favor of Aleksey Lisovenko, a Moscow city lawmaker who claimed Navalnyy had called him a drug addict in a post on Twitter. In this suit, the court filed Navalnyy 300,000 rubles ($5,085). On April 24, the Lublinskiy District Court in Moscow ordered Navalnyy to retract information posted on his Fund for the Fight against Corruption blog, which accused a United Russia Duma deputy, Sergey Neverov, of corruptly obtaining the money to build a country home. On June 12, the deputy mayor of Moscow, Maksim Liksutov, filed a libel suit against Navalnyy, claiming that his writings about Liksutov’s alleged shadow businesses in Cyprus were “lies that hurt (his) dignity and honor.” On June 30, the Lublinskiy District Court again found against Navalnyy in a suit initiated by the chairman of the State Duma Committee on Economic Policy, Igor Rudinskiy, and ordered Navalnyy to retract information posted about corrupt real estate financing on his blog
The government took significant new steps to restrict free expression on the internet. Threats to internet freedom included physical attacks on bloggers; politically motivated prosecutions of bloggers for “extremism,” libel, or other crimes; blocking of specific sites by national and local service providers; distributed denial-of-service attacks on sites of opposition groups or independent media; monitoring by authorities of all internet communications; and attempts by national, local, and regional authorities to regulate and criminalize content. The internet was widely available to citizens in all parts of the country, although connection speeds varied by region. According to Internet World Stats, almost 50 percent of the country’s population had internet access.
New laws placed additional restrictions on internet freedom. On September 24, the president signed a law, effective at the beginning of 2015, requiring that data servers for e-mail and social networking sites be kept on the country’s territory.
On May 6, the president signed a new law requiring all bloggers whose websites receive more than 3,000 unique visits per day to register as “mass media outlets” with all the corresponding responsibilities. On December 12, the editor of Echo Moskvy, Alexei Venedictov, and several other popular bloggers received a notice from Roskomnadzor asking them to register as mass media outlets. It was not known at year’s end if they complied.
According to human rights organization Agora’s 2013 Freedom of the Internet report released in February, the country’s online environment had “considerably worsened,” and it noted that a record number of bloggers and journalists were arrested, beaten, threatened, and censored in 2013. The report indicated a significant increase in the number of violent attacks on journalists, as well as a three-fold increase in the number of journalists that authorities brought to criminal and civil courts due to the content of their work. Agora also noted an increase in the number of cyberattacks on journalist and activist websites, from 47 in 2012 to 63 in 2013.
The state mass communications watchdog agency Roskomnadzor maintained a federal blacklist of internet sites. Roskomnadzor required internet service providers (ISPs) to block access to web pages that the agency deemed offensive or illegal, including information that was already prohibited, such as items on the Federal List of Extremist Materials. The law gives the prosecutor general and Roskomnadzor authority to demand that ISPs block websites that promote “extremist” information or “mass public events that are conducted in violation of appropriate procedures.” Roskomnadzor held blog owners responsible for the content in the comments section of their pages.
During the year authorities blocked the websites of major national independent news media and social network pages that criticized government policy. For example, on February 2, Roskomnadzor blocked four websites, including the blogging platform LiveJournal, after new amendments came into force that allowed them to cut off public access to online sources suspected of extremism without a court sanction. On March 13, Roskomnadzor temporarily shut access to four websites as well as the blog of opposition leader Aleksey Navalnyy to impede efforts to hold unsanctioned rallies to protest the country’s military intervention in Ukraine and its purported “annexation” of Ukraine’s Crimean peninsula. On April 28, Roskomnadzor blocked 10 Ukrainian websites “calling for mass protests in Russia.” The sites remained blocked at year’s end.
On April 22, Pavel Durov, founder of social network VKontakte, announced that he had fled the country due to pressure from the government. The previous day, April 21, Durov had been forced out as the company’s chief executive for refusing to share users’ personal data with law enforcement agencies. In the months leading up to his departure, FSB officials had requested on numerous occasions that Durov release information on the identities of both Ukrainian and Russian Euromaidan activists stored on VKontakte’s servers. He also refused a request from the Prosecutor General’s Office to shut down a group page dedicated to opposition activist Aleksey Navalnyy. Five months after Durov fled, the government-owned website Mail.ru purchased a controlling interest in VKontakte.
In many regions local prosecutors’ offices and courts ordered ISPs to block content on the Federal List of Extremist Materials and the federal internet blacklist.
During the year authorities prosecuted individual bloggers for allegedly “extremist” content they published online. Hearings continued in the 2013 extremism case of Murmansk Oblast blogger, Aleksandr Serebrynikov, the owner of the online news agency Blogger 51, which was critical of the Murmansk regional government. The case was transferred to Oktyabr’skiy District Court in May, but the court ruled to return it to the Investigative Committee for additional investigation. In July, however, Murmansk Oblast Court cancelled this ruling and returned the case to the district court for hearing. The hearing was scheduled for October 6 but was again postponed.
The government targeted organizations, especially NGOs and human rights defenders, that published information online about the government’s activities in Ukraine. For example, on September 13, the St. Petersburg Soldiers’ Mothers organization announced it would move its servers offshore after the Ministry of Justice labeled the organization a “foreign agent” and continued to target its website’s editors with hacking attacks as well as threats of physical violence. The organization cited fear of government infringement of their online database as the reason for moving their servers offshore, as well as concern that government authorities could access information regarding donors, supporters, and cases in progress.
There were multiple reports that authorities fined libraries, schools, and internet clubs during the year for failing to block adequately content listed on the Federal List of Extremist Materials or covered under the law defending children from harmful information. In one case, on June 20, local authorities filed charges against a Yekaterinburg secondary school director on the grounds that the content filters installed on the school computers did not provide complete protection against access to prohibited information, including extremist materials. The case continued at the end of the year.
The government continued to employ a “system for operational investigative measures” (SORM), which requires ISPs to install, at their own expense, a device that routes all customer traffic to an FSB terminal. The system enables police to track private e-mail communications, identify internet users, and monitor their internet activity.
Academic Freedom and Cultural Events
There were indications that the government took new steps to restrict academic and cultural freedom.
There were multiple cases of authorities opening criminal investigations against university professors whose writings criticized government policy, and in some cases firing them. For example, on October 1, religion professor Nikolay Karpitskiy from Yugra State University, in Khanty-Mansiysk, was informed that university management had reversed its earlier decision to extend his employment contract. While the university gave no formal notice of the reason for his dismissal, Karpitskiy told local media that his firing probably resulted from his participation in an academic conference on religious issues in Ukraine, since the administration had warned him that his participation in the conference would endanger his position at the university.
Authorities often censored or shut down cultural events or displays that they considered offensive, or that expressed views in opposition to the government, and in some cases initiated criminal proceedings against organizers. On March 20, the popular music group Lyapis Trubetskoy was forced to return home to Minsk, Belarus, after authorities banned it from playing at multiple venues in Tyumen. The group had been touring the country, played a sold-out concert in Yekaterinburg, and had already sold 600 tickets for the Tyumen venue, but authorities objected to their lyrics--described by Tyumen city council members as “pro-revolution”--and banned the group as a “security precaution.”