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New PEN International report highlights Russia’s relentless crackdown on free expression

Wednesday 10 October 2018 - 9:45am

The PEN provides a comprehensive overview of the intensified crackdown on free expression in Russia in the last six years

10 October 2018 - Laws passed since Vladimir Putin’s return to the presidency in May 2012 have dramatically strengthened the Russian authorities’ control over the flow of information online and offline, stifling free expression in Russia, PEN International, PEN Moscow and St Petersburg PEN warned in a new report published today.

The PEN report – Russia’s Strident Stifling of Free Speech 2012-2018 – provides a comprehensive overview of the intensified crackdown on free expression in the country in the last six years. From recently introduced legislation that criminalises legitimate criticism of the government, to state-run media which act as propaganda tools, to libraries targeted for holding ‘extremist materials’, the space for free expression, civil society and dissent is shrinking fast in Russia.

‘Russia’s aggressive assault on free expression is happening on all fronts, with the crackdown affecting not only writers, journalists, civil society actors and artists but all Russians. This report outlines the ways in which Russia’s voices are being silenced, but also makes suggestions as to how the Russian authorities can uphold their international obligations to safeguard free expression’,’ said Jennifer Clement, PEN International President.

Vaguely worded legislation and its selective application allows the Russian authorities to restrict access to and censor information, and carry out surveillance, thus drastically curbing free expression.

With few exceptions, Russian authorities or their affiliates own most media outlets, which have effectively become the voice of the state. The independent journalists that remain face huge pressure – legal, physical and economic – not to contradict the official line or provide coverage of critical viewpoints. Those that oppose face extreme challenges. Journalist Zhalaudi Geriev is serving a three year prison sentence in Chechnya on unfounded drug possession charges.

Independent journalists’ lives in Russia are hard. Some have paid the ultimate price. We remember our fearless colleague and friend Anna Politkovskaya, who was shot in the lobby of her apartment block in central Moscow. Although she was assassinated twelve years ago almost to the day, the masterminds behind her killing have yet to be brought to justice. Impunity emboldens perpetrators. It is time to end this vicious circle once and for all’ said journalist Nadezhda Azhgikhina, Executive Director of PEN Moscow.

The Russian authorities have imprisoned several people on politically motivated charges. Prominent Ukrainian writer and filmmaker Oleg Sentsov – a vocal opponent to Russia’s ‘annexation’ of Crimea – was arrested in Crimea in May 2014 and transferred to Russia in violation of international humanitarian law. He was sentenced to 20 years in prison in August 2015 on spurious terrorism charges after a grossly unfair trial by a Russian military court, marred by allegations of torture. He started his hunger strike on 14 May 2018, calling for the release of all Ukrainian nationals unfairly detained in Russia.

‘Oleg Sentsov was on hunger strike for 145 days, now he has stopped the strike under threat of being forcibly fed, and as a result of the past few months his health has failed considerably. In fact, he should have never spent a single day behind bars. The Russian authorities must release him immediately as a matter of urgency. Both Moscow and St Petersburg PEN Centres have taken part in a wide public campaign in support of Oleg Sentsov and on October 10 a petition will be delivered to the Russian Human Rights Council’, said Elena Chizhova, director of St Petersburg PEN.

The PEN report also shows how artistic freedom and literature are under threat. Although Russia has a thriving theatre scene, theatre directors are liable to prosecutions. Kirill Serebrennikov, one of Russia’s most prominent directors who has espoused views critical of the Russian authorities, has been under house for more than a year on allegations of fraud regarding the use of state funds, which he denies.

In her foreword to the report the famous writer Lyudmila Ulitskaya says, ‘When all the facts… are displayed in a row they give rise to more than a strong feeling. You understand that this is not a chain of random events, but the very logic of today’s life in Russia. This document provides a horrifying picture of the relationship between the state and civil society, the state and the individual, the state and the artist.’

PEN International, PEN Moscow and St Petersburg PEN call on the Russian authorities to immediately end their crackdown on freedom of expression and to create an environment in which free public debate can thrive. The very first steps towards this must include:

  • Repealing or amending laws stifling free expression in Russia and reviewing anti-extremism legislation so that it does not unnecessarily or disproportionately curtail the right to freedom of expression.
  • Ceasing politically motivated prosecutions of internet users and journalists and immediately and unconditionally releasing those currently imprisoned on such charges.
  • Ending the practice of censorship in literature, theatre and cinema, and creating an environment in which the artistic expression of dissenting views can prosper.

To read the report in Russian click here.

For more information contact Sahar Halaimzai, PEN International: sahar.halaimzai@pen-international.org | +44 207 405 0338; or PEN Moscow: svobodnoe_slovo@mail.ru | and St.Petersburg PEN: penspb@mail.ru