Russia: Freedom of Speech “shrinking” in Putin’s Russia- New Report

Those threatened include Amnesty award-winning journalists

Freedom of speech and assembly is under increasing attack in Russia, said Amnesty International today, as it launched a new report on press freedom just days ahead of forthcoming presidential elections (2 March) in the country.

In its 52-page report, Freedom limited. The right to freedom of expression in the Russian Federation, Amnesty International examines the pernicious effect of arbitrary interpretations of vague legislation and increasing harassment on the freedom of people in Russia to express their opinions and to stand up for their rights.

The report comes after a tumultuous period under Russian President Vladimir Putin that has seen armed police attack peaceful ‘Other Russia’ demonstrators, new laws that have harassed NGOs and their personnel, the unsolved murder of outspoken journalists and the closure of nearly all independent media outlets.

Amnesty International UK Director Kate Allen said:

“The space for freedom of speech is shrinking alarmingly in Russia and it’s now imperative that the Russian authorities reverse this alarming trend.

“Dissent of almost any kind is more and more difficult in Russia – and it’s literally been a matter of life and death in the case of journalists like Anna Politkovskaya.

“We need to see Mr Putin’s successor as president moving decisively to undo some of the damage done to human rights in recent years. Without that, Russia risks sliding deeper into authoritarianism.”

With days to go before Sunday’s presidential elections, Amnesty International is warning that in the past, the run-up to parliamentary and presidential elections has seen heavy clampdowns on freedom of assembly and expression. Opposition demonstrations have been suppressed, while pro-government events have gone ahead without interference.

Amnesty International’s report also expresses serious concern at the heavy burdens placed on NGOs by recent legislation. A recent study has shown that registering an NGO in Russia now takes three times longer than registering a business, while NGOs considered a threat to the government have been targeted with intrusive “reviews” of their work.

Combined with a 2002 law to combat extremist activities, a punitive tax law and Russia’s Criminal Code, the effect has been to intimidate and even silence some independent human rights work and journalism in the country.

In October 2006 the Russian-Chechen Friendship Society, which collected and distributed information about the human rights situation in Chechnya and other parts of Russia, was closed down. The closure was justified on the basis that Stanislav Dmitrievskii, the RCFS director, had been found guilty of inciting racial and ethnic enmity for the “crime” of publishing articles by Chechens advocating a peaceful solution to the conflict in the region. Earlier in 2006 Mr Dmitrievskii and his colleague Oksana Chelysheva, both of whom had received death threats, were awarded an Amnesty International UK media award for their journalism under threat.

Other organisations are now under attack. Golos (Voice), an NGO working to promote fair elections and conducting training for election observers, is involved in a legal battle to prevent closure of its Samara branch, while Rainbow House, a LGBTI rights NGO, has recently been denied registration.

Amnesty International is urging the Russian authorities to reform the NGO law, refrain from using laws like the “Extremist” law to clamp down on civil society organisations and independent media, and is also requesting that the Russian authorities instruct law-enforcement bodies on better policing of public meetings in line with the right to freedom of assembly.

It is also seeking prompt and impartial investigations into any reported human rights abuses against civil society activists, journalists and members of the political opposition.

Amnesty International also recently reported on infringements of the right to freedom of expression in the North Caucasus in a separate November 2007 report, Russian Federation: Human rights defenders at risk in the North Caucasus .

Freedom limited. The right to freedom of expression in the Russian Federation /em>

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