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More proofs that Russian authorities do not accept freedom of expression

Just a couple of days prior to jailed opposition leader Alexei Navalny’s death came another proof that Vladimir Putin’s regime will silence opposition and freedom of expression. Freedom of expression organisation Article 19 became the latest in a long line of civil society organisations declared ‘undesirable’ to the Russian State. 

BBC reports that on state TV channels, the media outlets with the biggest audiences in Russia, there has been minimal coverage of Navalny’s death. The first reports were largely slow to come and perfunctory. On social media, the picture is totally another.   

Article 19 says that the state designation was made public on 12 February and will in a presidential election year have serious ramifications for the people of Russia.  

“It will grossly harm their ability to access, participate in, or hold in their personal possession information published by an organisation that has been deemed ‘undesirable’.  Not only that, anyone found with materials can retrospectively be challenged in court for possession of such material”, Article 19 says.

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The possibility of declaring a foreign organisation as undesirable has been used in recent years as a tool to cut off debate and discussion between people in and outside Russia.

Russia ranks towards the bottom of Article 19’s Global Expression Report index, at position 141 out of 161 countries.  

“Our concern is for all Russians who stand up to the dangerous precedents conceived in the Kremlin in the last 20 years, and which are now embedded in the machinery of state.  These instruments will continue to see the criminalisation and silencing of individuals who simply wish to access their rights under international law.  Rights, it is worth noting, the Russian State claims to support.”  

Russian state media tend not to give much or any airtime to critics of the government, and their initial treatment of Alexei Navalny’s reported death continues in this vein, BBC reported.

On two of the most popular channels – Channel One and Rossiya 1 – it took almost 45 minutes and an hour respectively after the announcement, before it was mentioned.

These reports provided no contextual information of who Navalny was, nor why he was in prison.

“When a liberal politician appearing on another popular state TV channel tried to express his condolences on Navalny’s death, he was cut off by the programme’s host, who asked him what this had to do with the topic they were discussing.”

On social media, however, it is quite a different picture with the news has been all over platforms like X (formerly Twitter) – where it was a top trending topic – and Telegram, an increasingly popular source of news.

Posts on Navalny were among the most viewed on Telegram, garnering hundreds of thousands – sometimes over a million – views, in hours, BBC reports.

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The Committee to Protect Journalists in a statement urges Russian authorities to reconsider designating Article 19 as “undesirable” and cease using the country’s “undesirable” law to intimidate organizations that report on press freedom violations in the country. 

It seems less likely that Russian authorities will do so.

CPJ stresses that organisations that receive the undesirable classification are banned from operating in Russia, and anyone who participates in them or works to organize their activities faces up to six years in prison and administrative fines. The designation also makes it a crime to distribute the outlet’s content or donate to it from inside or outside Russia.

“CPJ stands with Article 19 and condemns its designation as an ‘undesirable organization’—a decision which only underscores how much Russian authorities fear being held to account for their repeated and long-standing violations of press freedom,” says Gulnoza Said, CPJ’s Europe and Central Asia program coordinator. “

Founded in 1987, Article 19 defends freedom of speech and information around the world. It is named after Article 19 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, which states that “everyone has the right to freedom of opinion and expression.”

Since 2021, Russian authorities have labelled dozens of media organizations “undesirable,” including exiled broadcaster Dozhd TV (T Rain), independent news outlets Meduza, Novaya Gazeta Europe, as well as investigative outlets iStories, The Insider, Bellingcat, and Proekt, CPJ reports.

CPJ emailed the Russian Ministry of Justice for comment but did not receive a response.

President Putin is expected to be re-elected next month for a fifth presidential term after silencing opponents.

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