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Update on Russia

The XpA 17/18 reported on Russia’s declining freedom of expression and the concentration of power around President Vladimir Putin.

2018 XpA Scores:
Freedom of Expression – 0.14 Civic Space – 0.15
Digital – 0.17 Media – 0.09
Protection – 0.18 Transparency – 0.21

Russia’s environment for dissent and expression remains tightly closed, with huge efforts put towards controlling the narrative – both online and off.

Mass detention of protesters

In January, after Russian authorities barred leading opposition politician, Alexei Navalny, from running for President, supporters organised nationwide rallies. Police detained over 370 people.[1]

Despite a predictably brutal response, Russia’s citizens took to the streets again to protest Putin’s re-election in May; around 1,600 were detained, including Navalny, who was in and out of jail throughout the year.[2] Police or pro-Putin groups arrested 15 journalists and attacked 11.[3] The European Court of Human Rights ruled in November that these multiple arrests were a violation of his right to assemble, as well as being politically motivated.[4]

In the same month, the population took to the streets of Moscow again over government blocking of the Telegram secure messaging platform,[5] and again in September over the rise in pension age. Police detained at least 1,195 people in 39 cities, including at least 14 journalists covering the protests, 3 of whom were beaten.[6]

‘Foreign agent’ laws

In the Russian Federation, in late 2017, ‘foreign agent’ laws were extended to media entities, meaning that they were obliged to report foreign funding sources and undergo regular auditing – with huge fines as penalty for failure.

In October, a Moscow court imposed a €300,000 fine (330,000 USD approx.) on The New Times, an independent news weekly, for late disclosure of foreign funding, placing the online outlet’s financial survival in doubt. The fine was upheld on appeal.

In July 2018, the State Duma considered amendments that would allow the government to designate even individual journalists working for such media as ‘foreign agents’.[7]

Death and censorship

The year was also marked by numerous suspicious deaths, including Maksim Borodin’s fall from his apartment balcony in April,[8] and the discovery of Denis Suvorov near a construction site with a skull fracture and signs of possible stabbing.[9]

Alexander Valov, editor of a popular blog in Sochi, was detained in January on extortion charges – despite no evidence having been produced.[10] In June, he allegedly ‘stabbed himself’ in the abdomen while in detention; lawyers cast doubt on the claim that his wounds were self-inflicted.[11] In January 2019, after a sham trial, Volov was sentenced to six years in a prison camp.[12] The blog has been offline since March 2018.

Digital repression and net neutrality

Russia’s censorship of search engines and circumvention tools, and demands on online platforms to cooperate with the Federal Security Service, were not the end of online restrictions in 2018; Russian authorities also pushed towards a ‘sovereign internet’.[13]

Draft legislation emerged, now passed, which has resulted in an autonomous Russian internet separate from the rest of the worldwide web. Under the new law, there would be new rules for internet traffic routing, a national domain-name system, and all Russian internet providers would have to assist the state in blocking all online material banned in Russia. Roskomnadzor (the Federal Service for Supervision of Communications, Information Technology, and Mass Media) would be responsible for overall control of the Russian internet.

New requirements came into effect in 2018, as part of the Yarovaya package of anti-terror laws,[14] which demanded that internet service providers and Telcos store data on servers, located inside the country, that were available to the secret services without court order. This data includes both the metadata and the elements themselves – content downloaded, uploaded, received, and sent, including pictures, emails, etc. The legal obligation was to store this data for six months, but when it emerged that the necessary infrastructure simply did not exist within Russia, concessions were made, with plans for full implementation later on.[15]

Tensions across borders

Tension between Russia and its neighbours continued in 2018. A Ukrainian decree banned several Russian media outlets for three years, and denied entry to a number of Russian journalists.

The Russian Ministry of Foreign Affairs published a list of individuals, including foreign journalists, who are banned from entering Russia for reasons of alleged Russophobia.

Latvia deported a Russian journalist on national security grounds.[16]

Director of Chechnyan human rights watchdog arrested

Oyub Titiev, Director of the CSO Memorial Human Rights Centre in the Chechen Republic, was arrested on 9 January 2018 for illegal drug possession – a common tactic used against activists and journalists in the region.[17] Titiev has now been released, but his treatment is part of pattern of reprisal against Memorial, which has monitored human rights abuses in Chechnya for more than 25 years; board member Natalya Estemirova was murdered in 2009, for which impunity continues.[18]



[1] Human Rights Watch, World Report 2019, p479, available at

[2] The Moscow Times, ‘Navalny sentenced to 30 days ahead of pension protests’, 27 August 2018, available at

[3] Marc Bennetts, ‘Russia’s Alexei Navalny arrested as 1,600 detained nationwide’, The Guardian, 5 May 2018, available at

[4] Human Rights Watch, European Court Vindicates Leading Russian Activist, 16 November 2018, available at

[5] Radio Free Europe, At Least 20 Detained At Moscow Rally For Internet Freedom, 13 May 2018, available at

[6] Human Rights Watch, World Report 2019, available at

[7] Council of Europe, Freedom of Expression in 2018, April 2019, available at

[8] Harlem Desir (OSCE Representative on Media Freedom), ‘OSCE media freedom representative shocked by death of journalist in Russia, calls for full, transparent and independent investigation’, Twitter, 16 April 2018, available at

[9] International Federation of Journalists, Russian Journalist Denis Suvorov Killed in Nizhny Novgorod, 25 July 2018, available at

[10] Reporters without Borders, Russia: RSF Condemns Well-Known Sochi Blogger’s Arrest, 24 January 2018, available at

[11] Committee to Protect Journalists, Imprisoned Russian Editor Wounded, Hospitalized, 19 July 2018, available at

[12] Reporters without Borders, Sham Trial Ends in Six-Year Sentence for Russian Blogger, 26 December 2018, available at

[13] Coda Story, Russia’s Next Step Toward Sovereign Internet, 14 February 2018, available at

[14] The International Centre for Not-for-Profit Law, Overview of the Package of Changes into a Number of Laws of the Russian Federation Designed to Provide for Additional Measures to Counteract Terrorism, 21 July 2016, available at

[15] Danny O’Brien and Eva Galperin, ‘Russia asks for the impossible with its new surveillance laws’, EFF, 19 July 2016, available at

[16] Council of Europe, Freedom of Expression in 2018, April 2019, available at; see also Committee to Protect Journalists, Ukraine Extends Ban on Russian News Agencies, Journalists, 24 May 2018, available at

[17] ARTICLE 19, Chechnya: Immediately Release Human Rights Defender Oyub Titiev, 11 January 2018, available at

[18] Lana Estemirova, ‘A decade after my mother’s murder, fear still reigns in Chechnya’, The Guardian, 14 July 2019, available at