[vc_row][vc_column][vc_single_image image=”100082″ img_size=”full”][vc_column_text]The following statement signed by 52 international organisations was delivered by Article 19 at the UN Human Rights Council on 27 June 2018.[/vc_column_text][vc_column_text]Thank you Mr. President,
The Russian Federation is pursuing policies that are significantly and rapidly encroaching online freedoms affecting not only the rights of people living in Russia but Internet users everywhere. Through the steady adoption of a raft of regressive legislation contravening international standards on freedom of expression, including access to information and the right to privacy, as well as placing unjustified pressure on Internet intermediaries, the Russian Federation is creating a framework, which, if fully implemented, would not only severely limit the free flow of information online but potentially give them access to the personal communication data of anyone, anywhere.
Last month, ARTICLE 19 together with 56 international and Russian human rights, media and Internet freedom organisations condemned the mass Internet disruption caused by the Russian Federation’s attempts to block the Internet messaging service Telegram, which resulted in extensive violations of freedom of expression including access to information. Almost 20 million Internet Protocol (IP) addresses were ordered to be blocked causing an unprecedented level collateral website blocking.
The basis of the authorities’ action was Telegram’s noncompliance with the highly problematic 2016 so-called ‘Yarovaya Law’, justified on the grounds of “countering extremism”, which requires all communications providers and Internet operators to store metadata about their users’ communications activities, to disclose decryption keys at the security services’ request, and to use only encryption methods approved by the Russian government – in practical terms, to create a backdoor for Russia’s security agents to access internet users’ data, traffic, and communications. In July 2018, other articles of the ‘Yarovaya Law’ will come into force requiring companies to store the content of all communications for six months and to make them accessible to the security services without a court order. This would affect the communications of both people in Russia and abroad, violating their right to privacy and creating a further chilling effect to freedom of expression and access to information.
Such attempts by the Russian authorities to restrict online communications and violate privacy, supposedly for the protection of national security, are neither necessary nor proportionate.The Russian Government must repeal ‘Yarovaya Law’ and refrain from pressuring Internet intermediaries to comply with requests that will violate their users’ rights or face having their services blocked inside the country.
Since 2012, Russia has operated a blacklist of Internet websites and incrementally extended the grounds upon which websites can be blocked, including without a court order. The permanent blocking of several online media outlets and also LinkedIn – are completely unjustified and can only be seen as examples to intimidate others into compliance. Individual Internet users have also been persecuted for online expression or even simply liking or sharing content on social media platforms.
Legislation currently under consideration includes further social media regulation (Proposed Bill № 223849-7) which would among other concerns eradicate the possibility of online anonymity and pressure companies to take down “unverifiable” information; as well as proposed amendments to the Criminal Code (Article 284.2) (Proposed Bill № 464757-7) that would criminalise information leading to ‘international sanctions’, which could be used to prevent the media reporting on public interest matters or NGOs conducting international advocacy. Both pieces of legislation, if adopted, would have a negative impact on the free flow of information and should not be brought into law.
Asociatia pentru Tehnologie si Internet – ApTI
Associação D3 – Defesa dos Direitos Digitais
Centre for the Development of Democracy and Human Rights
Committee to Protect Journalists
Civil Rights Defenders
Electronic Frontier Foundation
Electronic Frontier Norway
Electronic Privacy Information Centre (EPIC)
European Federation of Journalists
FIDH – International Federation for Human Rights
Free Word Association
Glasnost Defence Foundation
Human Rights House Foundation
Human Rights Watch
The Independent Historical Society
Index on Censorship
International Media Support
International Partnership for Human Rights
International Youth Human Rights Movement (YHRM)
Internet Protection Society
Kharkiv Human Rights Protection Group
Mass Media Defence Centre
Moscow Helsinki Group
Movement ‘For Human Rights’
Norwegian Helsinki Committee
Open Rights Group
PEN St Petersburg
People in Need
Press Development Institute-Siberia
Reporters without Borders
Russia Beyond Bars
Russian Journalists’ and Media Workers’ Union
Russian LGBT Network
Transparency International Russia
Webpublishers Association (Russia)
World Wide Web Foundation
On 15 May 2018, Russia’s State Duma approved in the first reading proposed amendments (Proposed Bill № 464757-7) to the Criminal Code (Article 284.2), amendments that would criminalise ‘the provision of recommendations and transfer of information that has lead or might have led to the introduction’ of international sanctions, providing for up to three years’ imprisonment and fines of $8,000. (see ARTICLE 19, 17 May 2018, Russia: Proposed amendments to Criminal Code threaten media freedom – https://www.article19.org/resources/russia-proposed-amendments-to-criminal-code-threaten-media-freedom/ )
On 12 April 2018, a new draft law (Proposed Bill № 223849-7) on social media regulation was adopted in the first reading by the Russian State Duma. The law draws inspiration from the German 2017 NetzDG law and would require social media companies to remove information that violated Russian law (within 24 hours) or face huge fines (up to 50 million RUB). In addition, social media companies would be required to establish representation in Russia and identify their users by their telephone numbers effectively preventing online anonymity (as all phone numbers are registered with the owner’s passport in Russia).
Both bills are awaiting their second and third readings in the State Duma.
Various requirements of the ‘Yarovaya Law’ are plainly incompatible with international standards on encryption and anonymity as set out in the 2015 report of the UN Special Rapporteur on Freedom of Expression report (A/HRC/29/32). The UN Special Rapporteur himself has written to the Russian government raising serious concerns that the ‘Yarovaya Law’ unduly restricts the rights to freedom of expression and privacy online (see http://www.ohchr.org/Documents/Issues/Opinion/Legislation/RUS_7_2016.pdf )
In October 2017, a magistrate found Telegram guilty of an administrative offense for failing to provide decryption keys to the Russian authorities – which the company states it cannot do due to Telegram’s use of end-to-end encryption. The company was fined 800,000 rubles (approx. 11,000 EUR). Telegram lost an appeal against the administrative charge in March 2018, giving the Russian authorities formal grounds to block Telegram in Russia, under Article 15.4 of the Federal Law “On Information, Information Technologies and Information Protection”.
For Russian users, apps such as Telegram and similar services that seek to provide secure communications through the use of encrypted messages are crucial for users’ safety and, inter alia, rights to freedom of expression and privacy. They provide an important source of information on critical issues of politics, economics and social life, free of undue government interference.
Between 16-18 April 2018, almost 20 million Internet Protocol (IP) addresses were ordered to be blocked by Russia’s communications regulator, Roskomnadzor, as it tried to restrict access to Telegram. The majority of the blocked addresses are owned by international Internet companies, including Google, Amazon and Microsoft and had a detrimental effect on a wide range of web-based services that have nothing to do with Telegram, including media. For more details see:
Pen International, Article 19, the Committee to Protect Journalists, Human Rights Watch, International Press Institute and Reporters Without Borders call the attention of the UN Human Rights Council to the continuous deterioration of freedom of expression and other human rights in Turkey. Following the coup attempt on 15 July 2016, the Turkish authorities have pursued an unprecedented crackdown against perceived critics and opponents. As noted by the UN Special Rapporteur on the right to freedom of opinion and expression following his November visit to the country, counter-terrorism legislation and the prolonged state of emergency are being used to severely restrict fundamental rights and freedoms, stifle criticism and limit the diversity of views and opinions available in the public sphere.
Since the Special Rapporteur’s visit, independent mainstream media have been all but silenced. There are now over 160 media outlets and publishing houses closed down since July 2016 and around 165 journalists and media workers jailed pending trial. Over 100,000 civil servants have been summarily dismissed, with over 47,000 including army, police and teachers jailed pending trial on charges of involvement in the coup plot and of association with the alleged Fethullah Gülen Terrorist Organisation (FETÖ). There has been a rise in allegations of torture or ill-treatment in police custody.
Turkey’s Kurdish population has also been disproportionally affected. The Turkish authorities frequently prosecute non-violent pro-Kurdish political activism or journalism for links with the armed Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK). Selahattin Demirtaş and Figen Yüksekdağ, the leaders of the parliamentary opposition Peoples’ Democratic Party (HDP), and other MPs from the party, have been in jail since November 2016. At least 87 municipalities in the southeast have been taken over by the government and their democratically elected mayors and officials removed or jailed. Several Kurdish journalists are incarcerated and most pro-Kurdish media outlets closed.
On 11 November 2016, the activities of some 370 NGOs were arbitrarily suspended, over half of them Kurdish organisations. Among the thousands of academics dismissed are around 400 who signed a January 2016 peace petition calling for an end to army abuses in the southeast.
Restrictions reached new heights in the lead up to Turkey’s contested constitutional referendum on 16 April 2017 which concentrated power in the office of the president. The campaign was marred by the authorities threatening, detaining and prosecuting individuals who voiced criticism of the proposed amendments.
Immediately after the referendum, president Erdogan raised the prospect of reintroducing the death penalty, which would be another disastrous step away from human rights norms for Turkey.
Journalists caught in Turkey’s crackdown
According to the Journalists’ Union of Turkey, an estimated 2,500 journalists and media workers have lost their jobs since July 2016. There are now at least 165 journalists, writers and media workers in prison, making Turkey the biggest jailer of journalists in the world.
Among these are several well-known writers and columnists, including Ahmet Şık, Şahin Alpay, Nazlı Ilıcak, Ahmet and Mehmet Altan, Ali Bulaç, Kadri Gürsel and the editor-in-chief of the opposition daily Cumhuriyet, Murat Sabuncu. Emergency provisions have been used to harass family members of journalists who have fled abroad or gone into hiding, including by cancelling their passports or detaining them in the stead of those accused.
Most detained journalists have been held in pre-trial detention for excessively long periods, facing terrorism charges with no access to the evidence against them and without compelling grounds to justify prolonging pre-trial detention. Indictments against journalists charge them with membership of armed organisations or involvement in the attempted coup without citing any other evidence beyond writings and commentary which neither advocate nor incite violence.
Detainees are only allowed one hour-long consultation with their lawyer a week and under supervision by prison staff, in violation of their right to confidential access to counsel.
As the Special Rapporteur pointed out in his recommendations, “nobody should be held in detention for expressing opinions that do not constitute an actual incitement to hatred or violence”. Moreover, imposing sanctions on individuals solely for criticising the government can never be considered a proportionate restriction on freedom of expression.
Lack of media freedom and pluralism
As stressed by the UN Human Rights Committee, “a free, uncensored and unhindered press or other media is essential in any society to ensure freedom of opinion and expression and the enjoyment of other Covenant rights. It constitutes one of the cornerstones of a democratic society.” States are under an obligation to create a favourable environment where different and alternative ideas can flourish, allowing people to express themselves and to participate in public debates without fear.
The 16 April constitutional referendum took place in a repressive climate. The Organisation for Security and Co-operation in Europe (OSCE) election observation mission noted the “unlevel playing field” and reported major concerns, including restrictions on freedom of expression under the state of emergency, lack of independent media, police interventions, detentions at “No” campaign events and biased use of state resources. Several opposition parties raised concerns about possible election fraud and irregularities and the European Commission called on the authorities to launch transparent investigations.
Rule of law and independence of the judiciary at risk
Turkey’s judicial system has come under attack since the failed coup. More than 4,000 judges and prosecutors have been permanently dismissed and among them around 2,500 are in pre-trial detention. Turkey’s Constitutional Court has not ruled on the thousands of pending cases relating to dismissals under state of emergency decrees and the government has not yet established its planned ad hoc commission to review the measures.
There are grave concerns that the constitutional amendments passed by referendum will lead to greater political control over the judiciary and further undermine the rule of law in Turkey. One amendment with immediate effect is the president’s ability to exert control over most appointments to the Council of Judges and Prosecutors. The modifications will have a profound impact on Turkey’s Constitutional Court, severely curtailing its ability to serve as an effective check of executive and legislative power and a guarantor of fundamental rights and freedoms.
Politicised court decisions against journalists and, conversely, the removal of judges who have granted bail to journalists have played a central role in the deterioration of press freedom.
The Turkish authorities have repeatedly failed to respect their obligations under Article 19 of the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR).
In the preliminary observations following his visit to Turkey, the Special Rapporteur urged the Turkish government to take immediate steps to protect freedom of expression, listing a number of concrete measures necessary to achieve this. These still stand.
We urge the UN Human Rights Council to press the Turkish authorities to:
Immediately release all those held in prison for exercising their rights to freedom of opinion and expression;
End the state of emergency;
End the prosecutions and detention of journalists simply on the basis of the content of their journalism or alleged affiliations;
Permit the reopening and independent operation of closed media outlets (including online publications) and halt executive interference with independent news organisations, including in relation to editorial decisions, dismissals of journalists and editors, pressure and intimidation against critical news outlets and journalists;
End the far-reaching crackdown on freedom of expression that has consistently escalated since the failed coup of July 2016;
Uphold the independence of the judiciary;
Investigate all allegations of torture and ill-treatment in detention;
Review the Anti-Terror Law so as to ensure that counter-terrorism measures are compatible with Article 19(3) of the ICCPR;
Reject any proposal to reintroduce the death penalty.
The Association of European Journalists, the European Federation of Journalists and Index on Censorship, NGOs without consultative status, also share the views expressed in this statement.
Political activist Maryam Alkhawaja has been released from prison but the charges against her still stand.
Alkhawaja was arrested at the end of last month when she travelled to Bahrain to visit her father, prominent human rights defender and co-founder of the Bahrain Centre for Human Rights (BCHR), Abdulhadi Alkhawaja, who has now been on hunger strike for almost four weeks.
Sayed Ahmed Alwadaei, head of advocacy at Bahrain Institute for Rights and Democracy (Bird), told Index on Censorship he felt Maryam Alkhawaja’s release was a clear example of how international advocacy can be a success. However, he said they are still concerned about her: “We are kind of really getting mixed messages whether her release is just to ease the international pressure,” he added.
A guarantee of a residing address, and a travel ban were the conditions of Alkhawaja’s release. She is also due in court at the beginning of next month, to face charges of assaulting a police officer, which she denies.
Khalid Ibrahim, the Gulf Centre for Human Rights (GCHR) co-director, said: “We call on the government of Bahrain to immediately drop the charges and free her without conditions.”
This week BCHR and GCHR wrote an open letter to Abdulhadi Alkhawaja urging him to end his hunger strike as his life is at serious risk due to prolonged starvation. He also undertook a hunger strike in 2012 which lasted for 110 days.
Abdulhadi Alkhawaja responded from prison yesterday. Thanking his friends for their concern, he added: “But as the world can see we’re in a situation where our only choice to demand rights and freedoms is by risking our lives.”
Ibrahim added, “Abdulhadi should also be freed, along with other wrongfully detained human rights defenders who have been targeted as a result of their peaceful and legitimate activities in defence of human rights.”
Yesterday, Americans for Democracy and Human Rights in Bahrain (ADHRB) and Bird, along with co-sponsors from several NGOs, hosted an event at the 27th session of the United Nations Human Rights Council in Geneva, entitled Tracking Bahrain’s UPR (Universal Periodic Review) Inaction Through 2014.
The discussion was moderated by prominent human rights activist and president of the BCHR, Nabeel Rajab. Speakers at the event were Philippe Dam (Human Rights Watch), Said Haddadi (Amnesty International), James Suzano (ADHRB), Abdulnabi al Ekri (Bahrain Human Rights Organisation – BHRO) and Nidal al Salman (BCHR).
Alwadaei said the event received good coverage, and it was very beneficial for political prisoners in Bahrain. “It was a place where they would hear their voice, where they will basically believe that they are not on their own in this struggle, there is an international community monitoring so they are not isolated,” he told Index.
Also this week, women’s rights defender Ghada Jamsheer was arrested and detained on charges of defamation on Twitter. GCHR and BCHR say her online blog has been blocked in Bahrain since 2009, and they believe these recent charges to be a direct violation of her human rights.
As the Human Rights Council (HRC) prepares to release its final recommendations on Bahrain, Index joins over 100 NGOs in calling for the country to implement the recommendations. Daisy Williams reports