Censorship in Russia during the conflict in Ukraine: the case of Novaya Gazeta

Since the beginning of Russia’s military action in Ukraine, gigantic violations of human rights have been apparently perpetrated by the Russian Federation, not only against the Ukrainian people but also against the Russian population. One could argue that Putin is fighting a war on two fronts: on the one hand, his army is fighting against the Ukrainian people; on the other hand, his government is waging a battle against pluralism of information and the independent media, blocking information and materials containing opinions that differ from the official point of view of the Russian authorities. Consequently, during the last month the Russians have been deprived of their fundamental freedoms of expression, peaceful assembly and association through “forceful collection of personal data, intimidation and reprisals, including threats of criminal prosecution and dismissal from their places of work or study for expressing their opposition to the war” (statement of Commissioner for Human Rights of the Council of Europe, 07th March 2022).
The main tool that has always been used by Russian Federation to restrict freedom of expression and freedom of the press is censorship. Russia has a historical track record, being ranked 150th out of 180 countries in the 2021 World Press Freedom Index. As a matter of fact, the beginning of the end of press freedom can be traced back to Putin becoming President in 2000 when he moved to bend the major information channels to his will and he banned independent information in Russia, thus de facto abrogating Article 29 of Russian Constitution that prohibits censorship and violating the right to “(…) receive and impart information and ideas through any media and regardless of frontiers”, strongly enshrined in Article 19 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights (UDHR). Over the years of his presidency, Putin has completely eliminated any diversification in the actual content of information and has reduced pluralism in the ownership of newspapers and television stations, wrested from independent owners and handed over to the government. It has to be recalled that in 2013 RIA Novosti (an independent State-owned media outlet) was unexpectedly liquidated and replaced with “Russia Today” (“RT”), one of Kremlin’s main propaganda tools.

With the beginning of the war in Ukraine, things have worsened: the censorship is now total. On the 4th  March, Russia’s Parliament on Friday passed a law imposing a jail term of up to 15 years for spreading intentionally “fake” news about the military action in Ukraine and for using words such as “war”, “civilian deaths” and “genocide”, further restricting that little freedom of expression left in Russia. Consequently, foreign media outlets (such as the Italian media outlet  R.A.I. or the U.S. New York Times) have temporarily suspended their service from Russia, so as to protect their journalists and reporters and to avoid negative repercussions of the new provisions on them. In addition to this, the Russian authorities have also halted the flow of independent information coming from outside the borders: they blocked access to Facebook and Twitter, and critical foreign media outlets have been shuttered, such as the BBC’s Russian service, independent Meduza and U.S.-funded Radio Liberty. Hence, the only available information for the Russian people is the one coming from the Kremlin-controlled media outlets.
In the subsequent days, this dramatic violation of fundamental rights has inevitably been brought to the attention of the whole international community: the Commissioner for Human Rights of the Council of Europe issued a statement on the 7th  March highlighting that the new provisions of Russian Criminal Code, referred to as “draconian”, leave “no space for free speech and opinion on the war”. The Commissioner called upon Russian authorities “to stop the war immediately and (…) to end the internal repression against human rights defenders, journalists, activists, and ordinary citizens who oppose the war and to fully respect their human rights including freedoms of expression, peaceful assembly and association in line with the international and European human rights obligations by which Russia is bound.

In this context, Novaya Gazeta, one of Russia’s last remaining independent news outlets, whose editor-in-chief is Dmitry Muratov (Nobel peace prize in 2021, for his efforts to support journalistic freedoms in Russia)  has tried to fight back Putin’s censorship regime. In the context of the already pending case of ANO RID Novaya Gazeta and Others v. Russia (application no. 11884/22), on 3rd March Mr. Muratov requested the European Court of Human Rights to apply urgent interim measures, under Rule 39 of the Rules of Court, asking the Court to enjoin Russian authorities not to interfere with lawful activity of Novaya Gazeta broadcasting news on the armed conflict in Ukraine and in particular “to refrain from blocking information items and materials containing opinions different from the official point of view of the Russian authorities; and to abstain from full blocking and termination of the activity of Russian mass media, including Novaya Gazeta. Interim measures under Rule 39 of the Rules of Court are applied to any State Party where there is an “imminent risk of irreparable harm”. In the present case, Mr. Muratov referred to an imminent risk of irreparable harm to freedom of expression (protected under article 10 of the ECHR) and the silencing of independent media in Russia. The editor-in-chief of Novaya Gazeta, in support of his request, mentioned the removal of several articles concerning the military activity in Ukraine, written between the 24th February and the 1st March, ordered by the Federal Service for Supervision of Communications, Information Technology and Mass Media (Roskomnadzor); he also cited other media outlets that have incurred in the same restrictive measures. After the introduction of new provisions in the Russian Criminal Code, all the four applicants (Novaya Gazeta, its editor Dmitriy Muratov, OOO Telekanal Dozhd, its owner Natalya Vladimirovna Sindeyeva) also referred to the new articles, in particular to the heavy custodial and financial penalties faced by those who spread information about the situation in Ukraine that are not in line with the Kremlin’s view. It must be highlighted that on 4th March, when the Russian Parliament enacted the new criminal provisions, Novaya Gazeta removed all published contents concerning military action in Ukraine and stopped reporting on it, so as to be able to report news without running into punishment, unlike other outlets, such as Echo of Moscow and TV Rain, that were banned. In its decision of 8th March, the ECtHR has decided to apply an urgent interim measure in the case ANO RID Novaya Gazeta and Others v. Russia, inviting the Russian authorities “to abstain until further notice from actions and decisions aimed at full blocking and termination of the activities of Novaya Gazeta, and from other actions that in the current circumstances could deprive Novaya Gazeta of the enjoyment of its rights guaranteed by Article 10 of the Convention (freedom of expression)”. The decision adopted by the ECtHR emphasises once again the work of the Court as guardian of the rights and freedoms of the Convention and it has shown that it is ready to firmly intervene when there are enormous violations of human rights.

Notwithstanding the binding character of interim measures of the European Court, it seems that Russia did not abide by them and that also Novaya Gazeta has lost that semblance of press freedom. On 28th March the independent newspaper announced its halting of publications until the end of the “special operation on the territory of Ukraine”. The announcement became necessary after a second warning came from the State censor Roskomnadzor. The first one arrived on 22nd March and a third warning may have cost the loss of the licence, under Russia’s foreign agent law. The second warning came because Novaya Gazeta allegedly failed to identify a “foreign agent” in its articles, although it seemed to be more an act of retaliation against the newspaper that kept reporting on the conflict and against its editor Mr. Muratov, who participated the day before in an interview with the Ukrainian President Zelensky. The clear sign that censorship has definitely struck even the Novaya Gazeta came the day after: on 29th March the last issue of the newspaper  – before the suspension of activities – came out with two blank pages, the result of censorship by Russian authorities.
It is clear that the European Court of Human Rights will not remain silent and will take appropriate action against the Russian Federation concerning the violation of Article 10 ECHR; the failure to comply with interim measures will be taken into consideration in the merit of the pending case ANO RID Novaya Gazeta and Others v. Russia. Indeed, even though the Russian Federation has ceased to be a member of the Council of Europe as from 16 March 2022 (Committee of Ministers’ Resolution (CM/Res(2022)2), in its decision of 22nd March the ECtHR has decided that it will continue to deal with applications against the Russian Federation “in relation to acts or omissions which may constitute a violation of the ECHR, provided that they occurred before 16 September 2022” as the Russian Federation will cease to be a High Contracting Party of the Convention on 16 September 2022 (Resolution of the European Court of Human Rights on the consequences of the cessation of membership of the Russian Federation to the Council of Europe in light of Article 58 of the European Convention on Human Rights).

The case of Novaya Gazeta has also been reported, since 4th March, in the Platform for the Protection of Journalism and Safety of Journalists of the Council of Europe, among the alerts concerning Russian Federation. The Platform is meant to allow the establishment of a dialogue between governments and organizations of journalists, with the aim of preventing threats to press freedom and to stop violations; on the one hand, it enables the Council of Europe to be alerted on serious threats to press and media freedom and, on the other hand, Member States are expected to inform the Platform about the measures they have adopted in response to the alerts. Other than the Novaya Gazeta alert, the Platform indicates that, in the current year, there are 21 active alerts, none of which has got a response from the Russian Federation. They all concern detention, harassment of journalists, or the cease of operations of media outlets. It is evident that, even when Russia was a member of the Council of Europe, it did not comply with its principles on press and media freedom and certainly it did not create a safe environment for journalistic activities as demanded by the ECtHR to Member States: “While setting up an efficient system to protect authors and journalists, States should create an environment which allows full participation in open debates, enabling everyone to express their opinions and ideas without fear, even if they are contrary to those defended by authorities or by an important share of public opinion or even if they shock or offend them” (Dink v Turkey, Nos. 2668/07, 6102/08, 30079/08, 7072/09 & 7124/09, 14.9.10, para. 137). In order to create such environment, States have two main duties: not to interfere with the exercise of freedom of expression but also to adopt positive measures of protection. The Discussion paper of the Secretary General of the CoE concerning the thematic debate on the “safety of journalists” (2 December 2013) states that “the primary duty of the state is to secure the right to life and physical integrity by putting in place effective criminal-law provisions to deter the commissions of offences against the person”. There is no doubt that the Kremlin has failed to enable journalists to freely do their job without the risk of compromising their safety: it is sufficient to mention the murders of six reporters of the Novaya Gazeta, among whom was Anna Politovskaya. Lastly, it must be mentioned the recent aggression to Mr. Muratov, on 8th April, while he was on the train, traveling from Moscow to Samara. An unknown person poured oil paint with acetone into his compartment. The news was announced by Novaya Gazeta Europe, a new project started by those journalists of the newspaper that fled the country after the suspension of activity in Russia. It seems that the actions of Russian authorities will not prevent journalists from reporting truths about the war in Ukraine and its implications, but , in order to do so, they need to flee the Russia.