While the constitution provides for freedom of speech and press, the government increasingly restricted those rights. The government instituted several 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 it had previously, creating a media landscape in which most citizens were exposed predominately to government-approved narratives. Significant government pressure on independent media constrained coverage of numerous problems, especially the situation in Ukraine, LGBTI problems, the environment, elections, criticism of local or federal leadership, as well as issues of secessionism or federalism. Self-censorship in television and the print media was 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 and Expression: 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 or killed after publicly questioning the government’s policies. On February 27, opposition politician Boris Nemtsov was shot and killed within sight of the Kremlin (see section 1.a.). Nemtsov was frequently criticized on state-controlled television, and after his death his daughter blamed “Russian propaganda” for creating an atmosphere that made his death possible. At the time of his killing, Nemtsov was preparing a detailed report on the involvement of Russian soldiers in the conflict in Ukraine.
In September opposition lawmaker Lev Shlosberg was expelled from the Pskov oblast legislature, a move he attributed to his investigation and publishing of information concerning the death of local paratroopers in Ukraine. In August 2014 after making public his investigations, Shlosberg was attacked while walking to a meeting with colleagues and was hospitalized with serious injuries.
Private citizens who expressed views counter to government policies faced discrimination, harassment, and physical abuse. On December 25, 18-year-old Vlad Kolesnikov committed suicide after having been expelled from his home, expelled from school, and beaten by classmates following his wearing of a T-shirt in June with the words, “Return Crimea.”
New laws criminalize certain types of expression. Expansions to the law on state secrets classify any information revealing Russian military casualties as a state secret, regardless of whether they occurred during times of war or peace. At year’s end authorities had not prosecuted anyone under the new laws.
Authorities invoked the 2013 law prohibiting the “propaganda” of nontraditional sexual relations to minors to restrict the free speech of LGBTI persons and their supporters (see section 6). In September the social media platform Vkontakte carried out a request by Roskomnadzor, the country’s mass communications watchdog agency and communications regulator, to block the website Deti 404 (Children 404), an online forum for Russian-speaking LGBTI teenagers to write openly and anonymously about their daily lives and hardships. On December 12, authorities charged the former director of the LGBT organization “Maximum,” Sergey Alekseenko, with violating the “propaganda” law through his posts on VKontakte that stated, “Being gay means being a brave and confident person, with dignity and self-esteem.”
In May the Moscow mayor’s office rejected an application by Moscow-based activists to organize an LGBTI pride parade (see sections 2.b. and 6).
Authorities continued to misuse the country’s expansive definition of extremism as a tool to stifle dissent. As of September 29, the Ministry of Justice expanded its list of extremist materials to include 3,072 books, videos, websites, social media pages, musical compositions, and other items, an increase of more than 600 items from the same date in 2014. On December 1, Oleg Novozhenin, an internet user who lived in the Siberian town of Surgut, was sentenced to one year in prison under article 282 of the criminal code for distributing “extremist materials” on social networks. According to media reports, Novozhenin posted to his VKontakte page audio and video files of the Ukrainian nationalist party organization “Right Sector” (banned in Russia) and the right-wing “Azov” volunteer battalion. In October authorities detained the director of the Moscow-based state-funded Library of Ukrainian Literature, Natalia Sharina, and charged her with inciting ethnic hatred and denigrating human dignity for making available alleged anti-Russian propaganda and extremist books, including by a Ukrainian nationalist author whose work is banned in Russia. On December 14, authorities searched the homes of multiple employees of the Library of Ukrainian Literature while Sharina remained under house arrest.
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. Three warnings in one year were enough to initiate a closure lawsuit. In July the agency issued its second warning within a 12-month period to independent newspaper Novaya Gazeta in response to a published excerpt from a novel that included an expletive, even though several letters of the word were replaced with asterisks.
In the wake of the attack in France against the editors of the French weekly magazine Charlie Hebdo, Roskomnadzor publicly warned media against publishing religious-themed cartoons and issued warnings to six media outlets that published cartoons from the French satirical magazine. Human rights groups reported such intimidation encouraged journalists and editors, who rarely were prosecuted directly, to censor themselves.
Press and Media Freedoms: The government increasingly restricted press freedom. The government, 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 individuals 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. A 2014 law, effective in January 2016, restricts foreign ownership of media outlets to no more than 20 percent. In anticipation of the law, foreign media owners began restructuring or selling their assets to Russian investors who often had close connections with the government. In September, CTC Media, which operated a handful of network and cable channels, sold a 75 percent stake in the company to UTH, a media conglomerate owned by Alisher Usmanov, a government-connected tycoon. Ostensibly a Russian company, CTC Media was incorporated in the United States, subjecting it to the new ownership law.
The government continued to pressure the leadership of the leading independent news outlets that exposed government abuses, including Novaya Gazeta, Dozhd, and RBK. Independent news outlets publishing stories critical of the government often faced official and unofficial retaliation for such coverage. On January 1, the local Tomsk television channel TV-2, one of the first independent news stations in the country, was forced to stop broadcasting after the state-run regional broadcasting center cancelled its agreement with the station, thus making it available only through certain cable packages. Local courts rejected three appeals from the channel arguing that the broadcast center’s decision to cancel the contract was illegal. TV-2’s editor claimed the threat was an effort by Roskomnadzor to punish the station for being an independent voice on local issues.
In March the leading independent newspaper Novaya Gazeta announced that it would consider ceasing to publish physical copies of the newspaper due to financial difficulties. The chief editor noted that the newspaper could not compete with official media, which received state financial support.
Government targeting of independent, liberal-leaning TV Dozhd persisted during the year. The station only operated online, via paid subscriptions, after the largest cable television providers dropped the channel in January 2014 reportedly under pressure from authorities. In September, State Duma deputy and leader of the nationalist Rodina party, Aleksey Zhuravlev, requested the general prosecutor conduct an inspection of Dozhd for potential violations of the law on mass media and on extremist activity, citing the station’s transmission of BBC and Deutsche Welle broadcasts. Zhuravlev claimed the station broadcast stories aimed at discrediting the country and its involvement in Ukraine. On December 7, Dozhd’s offices were inspected on the grounds of investigating the channel’s compliance with antiextremism, labor, and licensing legislation. The district prosecutor announced that while investigators had found some safety and labor related violations, these infractions did not “affect the rights and freedoms of citizens.”
Many newspapers ensured their financial viability by agreeing to various types of “support contracts” with government ministries, under which they 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.
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. 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. Officials continued to manipulate the price of printing at state-controlled publishing houses to pressure private media rivals.
Violence and Harassment: Journalists continued to be subjected to arrest, imprisonment, physical attack, harassment, and intimidation as a result of their reporting. The Glasnost Defense Fund reported numerous actions against journalists in 2014, including five killings, 52 attacks, 107 detentions by law enforcement officers, 200 prosecutions, 29 threats against journalists, 15 politically motivated firings, and two attacks on media offices.
While the government at times successfully prosecuted persons who harmed or killed journalists, efforts to identify and prosecute those who ordered the attacks appeared stymied by political considerations. In October journalist Oleg Kashin accused President Putin and Prime Minister Medvedev of shielding Pskov governor Andrey Turchak, whom Kashin claimed ordered a severe beating attack on him in Moscow in 2010 in retaliation for Kashin’s public criticism of Turchak’s performance as governor. Law enforcement authorities arrested two of the three alleged attackers, while Turchak remained free.
Journalists reporting in or on the North Caucasus district remained particularly vulnerable to physical attacks, including killing, for their in-depth reporting. An online news agency founded by the Chechen Information Ministry published an article in May comparing Novaya Gazeta investigative journalist Elena Milashina with slain journalist Anna Politkovskaya and threatened that she ultimately could face the same fate. The article appeared in the wake of Milashina’s reporting on the forced marriage of an underage girl to an already married regional police chief with alleged ties to Chechen head Kadyrov (see section 6, Early and Forced Marriage).
Shortly after the killing of opposition politician Boris Nemtsov in February, local news reported rumors on the existence of an alleged “hit list” that included Nemtsov, as well as Aleksey Venediktov, chief of the independent radio and news organization Ekho Moskvy, and Kseniya Sobchak, a newswoman at TV Dozhd, in retaliation for their critical reporting on the government. Chechen leader Kadyrov also threatened Venediktov, stating via social media that he had turned Ekho Moskvy into the “main anti-Islamic mouthpiece” and that “there will be people who will take Venediktov to task.”
Reports of pressure on journalists increased along with an increase in investigative reporting on the situation in Ukraine, according to NGO reports. In April editors of a local Buryatian newspaper removed an article from its website and physically cut the article out of 50,000 hard copy editions, due to criticism of the article, which concerned a local soldier who sustained heavy burns while fighting among separatists in eastern Ukraine. A previously published expose by Novaya Gazeta revealed that the soldier was not a volunteer, as progovernment media previously reported, but rather a Russian contract soldier.
There was no progress in establishing accountability in a number of high-profile killings of journalists, including the 2004 killing of Paul Klebnikov, the 2006 killing of Anna Politkovskaya, 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. A journalist reporting on corruption in Dagestan was kidnapped, forced into a car, and severely beaten by masked assailants in April. The journalist ran a project allowing users to report corruption in their city governments via social networks. He identified one of his attackers as the son of a local city mayor.
Censorship or Content Restrictions: The government continued to use laws and decrees to censor or restrict media content.
In December 2014 Roskomnadzor issued warnings to four online media sites that published the text of opposition leader Aleksey Navalny’s closing arguments from the Yves-Rocher trial (see section 1.e.). Navalny stated that the government “had no right to exist” and called on supporters to protest in the streets. According to Roskomnadzor the reprinting of these statements constituted a call for changing the country’s constitutional order and was thus illegal.
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 2014, officials made 29 attempts to seize or prevent distribution of publications. The Glasnost Defense Fund reported 51 instances of government interference with internet publications by December 2014, compared with 44 instances for the entire year in 2013.
During the year there were reports of courts forbidding high-profile journalists and bloggers from engaging in journalistic activity. In January a court in Rostov-on-Don sentenced journalist Sergey Reznik to a 42-month prison term for allegedly making false claims of police misconduct and publicly insulting representatives of the law. In May, Reznik had completed an 18-month sentence on charges of having allegedly falsified claims of threats made against him. After reporting the threats in 2013, he was attacked by two men with baseball bats and shot with a nonlethal traumatic pistol. Reznik covered regional and municipal abuses and corruption for several local media outlets. As part of his sentence, he was also banned from working in the media industry for two years.
The government utilized antiextremism laws to censor an array of online content (see section 2.a., Internet Freedom).
Libel/Slander Laws: 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. After journalist Kseniya Sobchak publicly challenged President Putin in December 2014 on his tolerance of the Chechen government’s order to burn terrorists’ families’ homes, the Chechen government filed a libel suit against her. The Prosecutor General’s Office also stated it would check slain opposition leader Boris Nemtsov’s report on Russian involvement in the conflict in Ukraine for libel.
National Security: The law places limits on free expression on national security grounds, notably in statutes against extremism and treason (see section 2.a., Freedom of Speech and Expression). In May, President Putin signed a decree classifying any information revealing Russian military causalities as a state secret without regard to whether they occur during times of war or peace. The decree specifically prohibits information concerning deaths that occurred “during special operations.” Legal and human rights activists criticized the decree, claiming that it exceeds the powers given to the president by the constitution and citizens’ constitutional right to seek and discuss information. They noted that under the law, information about emergencies and disasters that threaten public health and safety were classified, and thus talking to victims’ relatives about their loss was now a potential violation of the state secrets law.
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 data compiled by the International Telecommunication Union, approximately 71 percent of the country’s population used the internet in 2014.
A report issued by the Association of Internet Users stated that the number of cases in which the rights of internet users were infringed upon increased by more than half in 2014, from 1,832 cases to 2,951. The report noted that in 2014 instances of administrative pressure exerted by Roskomnadzor and the General Prosecutor’s Office in their enforcement of antiextremist laws rose nearly threefold. According to the association, the country’s court system was ill equipped to defend users’ rights and rule on the legality of state bodies’ actions. The association noted only one successful case, that of the website Sibkrai, in which website owners were able to challenge successfully the blockage of a site. Blockages of sites contributed to 2014 being the first year in which there was a decrease in the number of “.ru” domains.
New laws place additional restrictions on internet freedom. On September 1, the country’s data on-shoring law went into effect, requiring domestic and foreign businesses to store citizens’ personal data on servers located in the country. Critics expressed concern that the law might have negative commercial effects and provide the government with further access to citizens’ private information. At year’s end Roskomnadzor had begun conducting inspections of companies for compliance; a total of 317 companies were scheduled to be checked.
On August 1, the first anniversary of the 2014 law that requires bloggers with more than 3,000 daily visitors to register with the government or face fines, Roskomnadzor announced that the registry contained the names of more than 600 registered bloggers. The law does not define how to calculate the number of daily visitors, nor has Roskomnadzor provided specific instructions on how to register. Some bloggers reported that Roskomnadzor asked them to register or registered them involuntarily. Bloggers included on the registry are required to comply with laws that restrict certain types of language and content.
Roskomnadzor maintained a federal blacklist of internet sites. It 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.”
During the year authorities blocked or threatened to block some websites and social network pages that either criticized government policy or violated laws on internet content. Roskomnadzor briefly blocked the entirety of Reddit and the Russian-language Wikipedia during the year for failing to restrict access to information on narcotics. The communications regulator also blocked access to Yahoo’s video site after the service refused to comply with warnings to block access to an Islamic State video. The regulator also increased its requests to Facebook to block content. According to Facebook’s statistics, the government asked the company to block content 55 times in the second half of 2014, compared with just four requests in all of 2013. 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, including the content of other users’ comments on their pages. On December 30, a court sentenced blogger Vadim Tyumenstev to five years in prison for his alleged “extremist” activity on the internet, which consisted of urging persons to attend a protest against rising bus fares and criticizing ‘the government’s intervention in Ukraine. He was further banned from using the internet for three years. The Memorial Human Rights Center stated the jail sentence was “outrageous” and called for the verdict to be overturned.
On December 21, authorities sentenced activist Darya Polyudova to two years’ imprisonment for inciting separatism and extremist activities. The charges derived from three posts related to Ukraine on her VKontakte page. The first post was a comment by another user regarding ethnic Ukrainians in the Krasnodar Kray, the second was a photograph of Polyudova with a poster reading, “No war in Ukraine but a revolution in Russia,” and the third was a commentary about how Russians needed to follow the example of Ukraine’s Maidan activists. Despite the fact that her VKontakte page had only 38 followers, the posts were deemed a “danger to the public.”
In December 2014 Roskomnadzor requested that Facebook block access within the country to a page with information on an unsanctioned protest related to a case against opposition leader Aleksey Navalny and his brother. Roskomnadzor made the request in accordance with the law, which authorizes the agency to block pages that call for protests that would “infringe the public order.” Facebook complied with the order.
The government targeted organizations that published information online about the government’s activities in Ukraine, especially NGOs and human rights defenders. The St. Petersburg Soldiers’ Mothers organization continued to be subject to unannounced inspections and harassment relating to the foreign agent law for its part in seeking transparency and support for Russian soldiers in Ukraine.
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 March the Sverdlovsk oblast prosecutor’s office found that the central library system of the city of Berezovskiy lacked hardware and software necessary to filter programs on their libraries’ computers as required by law and fined the library 20,000 rubles ($308).
The government continued to employ a “system for operational investigative measures,” 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. In March university authorities e-mailed Dmitry Dubrovskiy, a professor and director of the human rights program at the Smolny College of Liberal Arts and Sciences of St. Petersburg State University, that his contract was not being renewed. While the university gave no formal reason for his dismissal, Dubrovskiy believed his activism against hate crimes and in support of LGBTI rights was the reason for his dismissal.
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. In March the deputy minister of culture fired the director of the Novosibirsk Opera and Ballet Theater, Boris Mezdrich, over alleged desecration of religious symbols in a staging of the Wagner opera Tannhaeuser. A representative of the Russian Orthodox Church wrote a letter to the Prosecutor’s Office after the opera’s premier accusing the director of the opera and the theater director of intentionally desecrating religious symbols. The Prosecutor’s Office subsequently opened an administrative case that was later dismissed for lack of evidence, but Mezdrich remained dismissed from his position.