New Russian laws to further limit internet use and curtail freedom of expression

Expression

In June, the Russian parliament voted on two laws that will regulate the internet, and further curtail freedom of expression on social media. Reporters without Borders and other international organisations expressed their concern over the laws, as Johann Bihr, the head of RSF's Eastern Europe and Central Asia desk, warned:

"If they take effect, these bills will drive one of the last nails into the coffin of Internet freedom in Russia". 

The first bill addresses gaps in censorship of the internet. On 23rd June, the law was unanimously adopted on the first reading, just two weeks after being submitted to the Duma (Parliament). According to the bill, internet providers would be required to cooperate in blocking banned websites in Russia. Otherwise, their own websites would become inaccessible to users. 

The second law pertains to instant messaging applications, such as WhatsApp and Telegram, and was passed in first reading on 14th June, just three weeks after its submission to the Duma. If adopted in the second reading, internet providers would have to cooperate with the authorities and disclose the content of instant messaging and other information about the users. According to the online Russian news sourceMeduza, the adoption of the laws was based on an urgent request by the head of Russian secret services. 

Peaceful Assembly

On 12th June 2017, several opposition rallies took place in Russia, during which thousands of people openly expressed their discontent with the high level of corruption and human rights violations in the country. The biggest protests were organised in Moscow and St. Petersburg. Opposition leader Alexey Navalny was detained right before the protest and then sentenced to 30 days in jail on 13th June. Also, another opposition politician, Ilya Iashin, was arrested during the rallies. According to Radio Free Europe, the internet access and electricity were cut off at Navalny's Anti-corruption Foundation's office before the demonstration started. When calling on people to participate in the protests, Navalny was quoted by the BBC as saying,

"I want changes. I want to live in a modern democratic state and I want our taxes to be converted into roads, schools and hospitals, not into yachts, palaces and vineyards".

Protesters that day knew their actions could be declared illegal, as they took to the streets, but thousands assumed the risk. Estimates vary, with approximately 600 protesters detained in Moscow, and 500 in St. Petersburg. Sentencing of protesters was mainly based on the argument that they had allegedly violated some provision in the law on organising protests. 

Association

On 3rd July 2017, Russian authorities banned the Black Sea Trust for Regional Cooperation (BST), a democracy and civil society support organisation based in Bucharest and established in 2007 by the well-known United States German Marshall Fund and the Romanian Foreign Ministry. BST was declared “undesirable” under the Russian law on “persons involved in violations of the fundamental human rights and freedoms of Russian citizens”, according to a decision by the general prosecutor on 30th June 2017. 

With the inclusion of BST on the list, there are now 11 organisations declared "undesirable" under the foreign agents law which can no longer operate in Russia or organise programmes and activities on the territory of the Russian Federation. Ninety-three Russian non-governmental organisations have also been banned under the law for receiving foreign funds. 

On 4th July 2017, Human Rights Watch (HRW) published an analysis entitled “Russia: Government vs. Rights Groups” in which HRW reported that more than 20 organisations had been removed from the "foreign agents" list when they agreed to stop accepting foreign funding.