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Russia prepares to draw iron curtain around local NGOs

Series of laws restrict free expression among human rights groups

A series of laws and proposed legislation in Russia are restricting freedom of expression and making it difficult for LGBT organizations and other NGOs to function. Credit: pharmamkting.blogspot.ca

Russia’s LGBT organizations are about to be muzzled. A series of bills, designed to restrict freedom of expression of individuals and groups, are beginning to pose a serious threat to those working to protect human rights in the country.

The most recent cause for concern is proposed legislation related to restrictions of internet usage, which is making its way through parliament. Positioned as anti-terror legislation, the proposed bills would oblige website operators to disclose all user activities to the government and would set new restrictions for individuals and organizations accepting donations through online payment processors.

Another piece of legislation that has Russia’s human rights community on guard is an amendment to the definition of treason, made in October 2012, which states that treason includes “providing financial, technical, advisory or other assistance to a foreign state or international organization.”

According to Svetlana Zakharova, a spokesperson for the Russian LGBT Network, the breadth of this definition places LGBT organizations in peril. “The law can be used to justify close surveillance of NGOs and activists,” she says.

The international community echoes her concerns.

“This overly broad and vague definition seems deliberately designed to make people think twice before doing international human rights advocacy,” says Hugh Williamson, the European director at Human Rights Watch, in a press release. “In Russia’s new political climate, it’s reasonable to believe the authorities’ threshold for interpreting what ‘harming Russia’s security’ means will be quite low.”

Despite the government’s efforts to silence controversial voices, Russia’s LGBT organizations continue to find new ways to promote their work. The Russian LGBT Network, an organization devoted to providing psychological and legal support to community members, is in the process of organizing a roundtable to be held in Moscow on Feb 27.

“We are planning to invite representatives from mass media organizations, from government and from religious institutions to openly discuss the issues our community faces,” Zakharova says. “We believe that in all of these structures there are individuals who understand that the current situation can only lead to an escalation of violence and will be willing to support our work.”

“I believe that all of these laws go hand-in-hand,” she explains. “They aim to make it extremely difficult for human rights groups to continue to function. And, of course, that extends to us and other LGBT organizations.”

The Russian LGBT Network is also leading a campaign against the infamous law banning propaganda of non-traditional sexual relations to minors. “Our short-term goal is to obtain freedom of expression for all,” Zakharova says. “This will make it possible for the discourse we need to change public opinion to take place.”

The LGBT Network is also providing legal support to Elena Klimova, a Russian journalist who is being charged with violating the law for creating Children-404, an online multimedia project to support local LGBT teenagers.

According to Zakharova, a multitude of laws and amendments, masquerading as measures to protect national security, have been passed to support “the homophobic politics of the government.”

She says a law passed in November 2012, which requires all NGOs that receive funding from abroad and that engage in what is deemed to be political activity to register as foreign agents, has already posed serious obstacles. 

Under the “foreign agent” law, NGOs have to publish a biannual report on their activities and carry out an annual financial audit. Failure to comply can result in fines of up to 500,000 rubles (approximately $16,000).

In April 2013, Coming Out, an organization committed to obtaining equal rights for all regardless of sexual orientation, was found in violation of the foreign agent law. The group had received funding from the Consulate General of the Netherlands and the Embassy of Norway. Its advocacy work, which included a silent rally that featured the slogan “We are for traditional values: love, family, respect of human dignity” and the publication of a brochure entitled “Discrimination of LGBT Individuals: What, How and Why?” was deemed political activity.

After an appeal to the St Petersburg court last August, the case was dismissed, and fines imposed against the groups and its director were dropped because the violation had expired. However, in October a civil lawsuit was filed against the group.

“A group of unidentified persons filed the complaint,” says Polina Andrianova, a spokesperson for Coming Out. “They claim that we conduct political activity, but this is not the case. We do not act in any government’s interest. Our work is in the interest of the well-being of all Russian people.”

A hearing is scheduled in March and, according to Andrianova, “the outlook is not very good.”

Whatever the outcome, Andrianova says Coming Out will not register as a foreign agent but will continue working to defend LGBT rights in Russia.

“To voluntarily label ourselves as foreign agents is to agree that we are acting in the interest of foreign states. It will discredit us in front of our beneficiaries and the general public.”

According to regulations, groups registered as foreign will be subject to special checks, and any content published by these groups will have to be labelled as having been issued by a “foreign agent.” Andrianova says that, in Russian popular consciousness, the term “foreign agent” equates with spy.

Side by Side, an organization that promotes the LGBT community through an annual international film festival and other educational activities, was also charged with violating the foreign agent law in the summer of 2013. “We were fined 400,000 rubles,” says Gulya Sultanova, the group’s director. “Immediately afterwards, we liquidated the not-for-profit organization to avoid further issues.”

Although Side by Side has survived and will continue its activities, Sultanova says difficult times are still ahead.

“Overall, there is a very unhealthy atmosphere in the country because democratic institutions are getting weaker and weaker. It is very hard for LGBT organizations like ours to survive and to find partners, because everyone is afraid of the government’s reaction to their working with us. I have no doubt that there will soon be more serious efforts to shut down the small islands of free expression and activism that still exist.”