Lawyers speaking about censorship
Russia destroys freedom of speech: what future holds for Russian media
From the onset of the war in Ukraine, Russia undertook censorship which practically destroyed independent media: hundreds of outlets were blocked; certain media suspended or completely stopped their activities; and journalists fled the country en masse due to numerous risks.

How was the media landscape of the country purged and what awaits the Russian-speaking media in the future? To find out, we spoke with lawyers, attorneys and technical experts.
Russia destroys freedom of speech: what future holds for Russian media
Lawyers speaking about censorship
From the onset of the war in Ukraine, Russia undertook censorship which practically destroyed independent media: hundreds of outlets were blocked; certain media suspended or completely stopped their activities; and journalists fled the country en masse due to numerous risks.

How was the media landscape of the country purged and what awaits the Russian-speaking media in the future? To find out, we spoke with lawyers, attorneys and technical experts.
Since the beginning of the war, more than five thousand websites were extra-judicially blocked by Roskomnadzor, Russia’s media regulator
It took Roskomnadzor only a couple of hours after the start of the offensive in Ukraine to ban the media from using information not coming from official Russian sources. Failure to comply with this requirement, i.e., "dissemination of false information" (according to the regulator), threatened the media with "immediate blocking of such materials" in accordance with Article 15.3 of Federal Law No. 149.

As early as February 26, there were reports that Roskomnadzor had requested media to delete certain publications. Then the regulator proceeded with blocking not individual pages, but entire websites. In fact, this meant that all previous media content was brought into oblivion (see the report Russia: Human Rights under Martial Law by Pavel Chikov, head of the Agora International Human Rights Group, and Damir Gainutdinov, head of Online Freedoms). Media blocking has rapidly become commonplace.

According to Roskomsvoboda, an NGO that supports protection of digital rights, since the beginning of the war, Russia imposed censorship on more than 5,3 thousand websites. "Websites that depicted the war and losses were not homogeneous and counted registered and unregistered media, foreign, Ukrainian, and European outlets. Among them, there is even one website that provides taxi services: they blogged only once about the "special operation"", Sarkis Darbinyan, Roskomsvoboda’s leading legal counsel, said.

According to Sarkis Darbinyan, all independent media have remained under Roskomnadzor’s surveillance for a long time. Roskomnadzor’s officers monitor their content with the help of ad-hock software, which analyzes keywords. If there is a match, they inform the Office of the Prosecutor General. The Office in its turn makes a decision whether to block a website or not and informs Roskomnadzor accordingly.
"The Prosecutor General’s Office makes independent decisions and does not show them to anyone except for Roskomnadzor. In our practice, we could only get access to these decisions by going to court. This is the most obscure form of blocking that all digital human rights activists have been talking about for many years", Sarkis Darbinyan emphasized.
Restricting access to independent media is enabled by a law adopted in 2013 along with the Lugovoy Law
In Russia, a simplified blocking procedure was introduced at the end of 2013. Back then, a package of criticized bills was adopted, including the Lugovoy Law (on blocking "extremist" websites). At the same time, Article 15.3 of the Federal Law "On Information" came into force. It is now often used and makes it possible for Roskomnadzor to block websites without a court decision solely on the basis of an order from the Prosecutor General’s Office.

It is assumed that such websites publish "information containing calls for mass riots, extremist activities, participation in mass (public) events held in violation of the established order" and therefore access to them should be restricted.

In fact, the websites were blocked for describing ways to commit suicide, and for covering protests. Sometimes media do not even know about the reasons for which their websites were blocked. Media lawyer Svetlana Kuzevanova recalls the case of the Daily Magazine, which was one of the first websites blocked in accordance with the Lugovoy Law, back in 2014, without any explanation.

"The government has put a lot of effort into creating a quick and easy tool to ensure no information is disseminated. Website blocking is very efficient. This is a very convenient legal instrument that enables you to block everything by just pressing a button. Of course, you can’t shut down the entire Internet, but you can quickly and effectively kill one website that you don’t like," the media lawyer said.
In the spring of 2022, criminal liability was introduced for publications about the war. In fact, it was military censorship
On March 2, a bill was introduced to the State Duma to punish anyone for up to 15 years in prison for "making and distributing fake news" about the Russian military. Already on March 4, the bill was signed by the Russian president. The Criminal Code was supplemented with Article 207.3 (on the dissemination of "knowingly false information about the use of the Russian Armed Forces" with a penalty of up to 15 years in prison) and Article 280.3 (on "discrediting the Russian military", for which one may end up behind bars for 5 years).

As Svetlana Kuzevanova notes, Article 207.3 should be applied in conjunction with other articles regulating "fake news". Back in 2019, the Code of Administrative Offences was supplemented with Article 13.15 "Abuse of Media Freedom". A year later, the pandemic hit, and fake news were criminalized: Articles 207.1 and 207.2 were added to the Criminal Code.

"On March 4, 2022, the government faced a large amount of content that was difficult to control, and in order to enable self-censorship, they enacted an article that allowed them to charge people swiftly and on the account of fake news about the "special operation". This article is already considered to be related to the military censorship family", Svetlana Kuzevanova explained.

According to courts, fake news is any information that contradicts the official stance of the Ministry of Defense. That is, if the Ministry of Defense says that the Russian military did not bomb the maternity hospital in Mariupol, then anyone who claims otherwise is spreading fake news. Publications about the tragedies in Bucha, Irpin and Kramatorsk were considered grounds to initiate criminal proceedings.
Dozens of independent media outlets have closed or suspended their operations in Russia under the pressure of censorship
In the face of website blocking or the threat of criminal prosecution, some media outlets closed after February 24. The loudest case of the first days of the war was the dismantling of the radio station Ekho Moskvy. On March 1, Roskomnadzor restricted access to Ekho’s website and broadcasts. On March 3, the Board of directors closed the radio station and the website, and terminated the contract with the editor-in-chief Alexey Venediktov.

On March 3, the TV channel Dozhd suspended its operations, and later and Novaya Gazeta followed suit. Tomsk news agency TV2 and the Yakut media were closed. Other media, for example, Taiga-Info and The Bell, announced their decision not to cover the situation in Ukraine. Other outlets, like Meduza, Mediazona, and Kholod "evacuated" employees abroad and are now working from behind the curtain.
Media may appeal the blocking of their website in court, and make a subsequent appeal to the European Court of Human Rights (ECHR). At the same time, Russia is preparing a law on non-execution of the ECHR’s decisions
In accordance with the law «On Information», access to the blocked website may be restored. For example, if the owners or editors delete prohibited information. However, Russian media reported that their websites were not unblocked even after the removal of publications.

Blocked media have the right to apply to the court. But today, according to Pavel Chikov, everything depends on the circumstances and there are already media that have lost in the first instance.

Lawsuits, for example, were filed by Mediazona, Republic, Taiga.Info, 7x7 and Bumaga. The lawsuit of Ekho Moskvy, which tried to challenge its blocking, was rejected by the court. In June, Alexey Venediktov said that he planned to go on air again, adding that he had taken legal action to challenge the unjust closure of the radio station.

According to Svetlana Kuzevanova, in practice, blocking is almost always a one-way street. If the website has been blocked entirely, it will be difficult to unblock it. According to the media lawyer, such lawsuits can be filed in only two courts in Moscow located next to the Prosecutor General’s Office and Roskomnazdor, Tverskoy and Tagansky respectively. «Both courts have always had the same judge presiding over all these cases. And all of them were considered as a carbon copy with the refusal to satisfy the claims», Svetlana Kuzevanova said.

Another way, previously available to the media, is to appeal to the European Court of Human Rights. «Everyone who appealed against the blocking of websites in Russia did it only in order to exhaust all legal remedies within the country, otherwise it is impossible to apply to the ECHR», the media lawyer explained. According to her, decisions of the ECHR were important not only because the court awarded monetary compensation. The strategic goal was that the ECHR would point out to Russia the need to modernize the legislation on website blocking because it did not meet international standards.

«It is clear that the government was not interested in changing the law on blocking at all for political reasons. But nevertheless, the authorities were obliged to respond to the decisions of the ECHR and it was possible for the media to slowly but surely persevere», Svetlana Kuzevanova explained.

On March 15, Russia left the Council of Europe, which also meant the country’s withdrawal from the jurisdiction of the European Court of Human Rights. If nothing changes, Russia will cease to be a member of the ECHR on September 16, 2022. Until then, the ECHR accepts appeals from Russians. However, the State Duma is already considering a package of bills on the non-enforcement of the ECHR’s decisions in Russia. «The European Court of Human Rights has become an instrument of political strife against our country in the hands of Western politicians», Vyacheslav Volodin, Chairman of the State Duma, said. According to the adopted amendments, the decisions of the ECHR will not be enforceable in Russia after March 15, 2022.
The authorities are also cracking down on journalists. In the spring of 2022, 21 criminal cases were opened against them
According to the trade union of journalists, 21 criminal cases were opened against journalists in the spring of 2022. Most of them are related to the war: only under article 207.3, there are 14 cases against journalists.

One of the first criminal cases under the new article was opened against a journalist from Kemerovo Andrey Novashov. The reason is that he reposted the article by Victoria Ivleva "Mariupol. The Blockade".

The list of journalists who are being prosecuted under new criminal cases includes Alexander Nevzorov, Michael Naki, Dmitry Gordon, Ruslan Leviev, Andrey Soldatov, Maria Ponomarenko, Sergey Mikhailov and Mikhail Afanasyev.

Svetlana Kuzevanova draws attention to the press releases of the Russian Investigative Committee when criminal cases are opened against journalists: "They turn them into whole media projects with videos, photos, and text. This is the first time I’ve seen such press releases from the Committee". For example, in the press release on the criminal case against Alexander Nevzorov, there is a photo of the journalist, and the statement itself is given both orally and in writing.

According to the media lawyer, criminal cases against journalists are initiated not on the ground of their professional publications, but for personal projects or posts on social networks.

"If a journalist writes something that can be regarded as fake news on the pages of their media, then, as a rule, the media is blocked. It’s easier to block than to take legal action. It is also important to win the war for the media space. And it works 100%. We live now in our own VPN bubble", Svetlana Kuzevanova explained.

The police and the Investigative Committee are also initiating criminal cases against those journalists and bloggers who have already left Russia but continue to write in Russian. "The fact that a person stays abroad only delays the moment of bringing them to justice", Svetlana Kuzevanova said. "It can be criminal prosecution, arrest in absentia, indictment, international warrant, seizure of property in Russia and even a trial in absentia with sentencing", Pavel Chikov listed ways to put pressure on the journalists who left.
Instagram, Facebook and Twitter are blocked. YouTube and Telegram seem to work only because they are avenues for propaganda by the authorities
Blocking affects not only media, but also platforms. Since March 4, Twitter and Facebook have been blocked. Before blocking, Roskomnadzor had been decreasing their bandwidth. On March 14, the watchdog blocked Instagram.

On March 21, Meta was banned in Russia. Meta was declared extremist following a change in Facebook’s policy that allowed users from Ukraine to call for violence against Russians in the context of the war. On June 20, the Moscow City Court recognized the ban as legitimate and refused to satisfy Meta’s appeal.

YouTube and Telegram remain unblocked in Russia for now. "We need to understand one thing: the only reason that they are not blocked, in my opinion, is not a legal or a technical one. The grounds and opportunities are plenty. It’s just that state propaganda also needs to distribute content through channels with a large number of subscribers, like YouTube and Telegram. These are the only large-scale online platforms", Sarkis Darbinyan commented.

According to the human rights defender, the blocking of Telegram and YouTube cannot be ruled out, but it will be a political decision. "If at one moment the Kremlin thinks: "ok, enough is enough, television and existing channels will do"; then, of course, I allow blocking of both YouTube and Telegram and even mass shutdowns with a complete block of the Internet, if the Kremlin faces civil protests, as we have seen in Kazakhstan, Iran, India and other countries", he said.
VPN providers are not spared by the authorities
Since June, Russian users have been reporting problems with access to ProtonVPN, Lantern and Outline. Roskomnadzor said that the means of circumventing the blocks are "recognized as a threat" in accordance with the law "On Communication", although this is not the case according to the law itself, and the use of VPN services is not illegal.

The grounds for blocking VPN services are also prescribed in the law "On Information". The respective article was enacted in 2017. It mentions "measures aimed at countering the use of information and telecommunications networks on the territory of the Russian Federation" which allow access to blocked websites.

Sarkis Darbinyan says that the public VPN witch hunt began a long time ago, but it failed. However, after the unsuccessful blocking of Telegram in 2018, the Russian authorities learned their lesson and installed technical means of countering threats at the communication nodes of all mobile operators. This software and hardware allow them to restrict access to information prohibited in Russia.

"Yet, different VPN providers use different protocols. There are state-of-the-art protocols that can camouflage traffic, for example, disguise it as a phone call. Then, even with the help of technical means of countering threats at the communication nodes, Roskomnadzor cannot assume that it is a VPN", Sarkis Darbinyan explained. In this regard, of course, it is impossible to block all VPN services. Most of them have already been through hell and back: they have users in China and Iran and have quite a good experience in circumventing systems like that.
Russia will continue its media crackdown. There are two more laws in the pipeline that seriously threaten the freedom of speech
"It is easy to make political forecasts in Russia, because if you say it will become worse, you will always nail it. There is no doubt that the situation will worsen and become more complicated in various aspects, only the degree and depth remain in question. So, there is no silver lining, the pressure remains, authorities do not seem to falter", Pavel Chikov said.

At the end of June, the State Duma passed a law in the third reading, which makes it possible for the Prosecutor General’s Office to close down any media for spreading "fake news", "discrediting the military" and "calling for sanctions" without a court order. A new law on "foreign agents" has also been adopted, it will come into force on December 1, 2022. Any Russian organizations or citizens may be deemed "foreign agents" (even if they have not received foreign funding). Today there are four foreign agent registers, they will be merged into one.

The State Duma also adopted amendments to the Criminal Code in the second reading, according to which the Code may be supplemented with articles on control of the dissemination of information. For example, criminal liability with a penalty of up to 4 years in prison for repeatedly demonstrating Nazi symbols or symbols of extremist organizations. It is planned to introduce a maximum penalty of up to 7 years in prison for calls on the Internet for activities "against the security of the state", and up to 9 years for cooperation with international organizations.

Svetlana Kuzevanova agreed with Pavel Chikov’s forecast: "Will the lawmakers take a summer vacation? Perhaps. But law enforcement will certainly not. If laws about foreign agents, eternal website blocking, the possibility of liquidating any media without trial and investigation, are quickly adopted now, which was unspeakable before, we can expect a crackdown from the law enforcement in the summer. Slowly they will try to put the law into practice. In general, the direction has been set, and the authorities are methodically following it".

In addition, Article 18.1 of the Federal Law "On Advertising" comes into force in September. Accordingly, Roskomnadzor will monitor advertisements posted on the Internet, as well as information about advertisers and distributors. Ekaterina Zuban, lawyer at the Center for the Protection of Media Rights, says that it is not yet known for what purposes this information will be collected.

According to Sarkis Darbinyan, the media crackdown on the Russian Internet will continue with the tightening of control and supervision by law enforcement agencies. And only the lack of a sufficient amount of hardware at Roskomnadzor will not allow the full deployment of the "sovereign Internet" and establishing total control over cyberspace. "There is hope that we will not find ourselves in a complete digital isolation and will be able to access information, as well as protect our privacy with the help of reliable tools", the lawyer says.