Russia: legislative initiatives further threaten freedom of expression

The OSCE Representative on Freedom of the Media, Dunja Mijatović, expressed concern today over the new initiative in the Russian State Duma to criminalize speech which sheds a negative light on the role of the Soviet Army in World War II.

“I call on the Russian authorities to carefully review the proposed changes as they go beyond the mere banning of the glorification of Nazism. A narrow application of such a law might lead to its abuse and suppress political and critical speech on issues of history and eventually affect freedom of the media,” Mijatović said.

According to media reports, the draft law introduces punishment inter alia of “intentionally false accusations” against the armed forces of the anti-Hitler coalition of having committed crimes during the WWII. The draft introduced to a committee of the State Duma proposes an addendum to the Criminal Code that envisages up to five years of imprisonment for such statements.

“Any legislative provisions criminalizing speech should avoid vague language and be restricted to instances of intentional and dangerous incitement to violence. The public has the right to be informed about matters of concern, including on differing views on any historical debate, even if it is painful or provocative. In this the media is vital and its role should be respected,” Mijatović said.

Mijatović also said the draft bill should be considered in the context of other recent legislative amendments banning the promotion among minors of “non-traditional sexual behaviour” as well as speech harming the religious feelings of believers through media. She emphasized that the new laws could potentially have negative implications on freedom of expression and the free flow of information. She warned that this might lead to an increased manifestation of hate speech in the media.

“It is legitimate for states to fight xenophobia, hatred and any justification of Nazism. However, I believe that the courts in the Russian Federation have sufficient legal instruments to deal with these phenomena. A criminalization of speech – as suggested by the recent initiatives – could restrict freedom of expression and freedom of media, stifle public debate and thus undermine democracy and human rights,” Mijatović said.