A new report from Russian human rights organisation Agora has highlighted further evidence of the crackdown on internet freedom in Russia, at the same time as main opposition leader Alexia Navalny has been convicted of embezzlement.
Agora is a group which brings together around 50 lawyers who special in human rights and related disciplines. They have played a role in a number of prominent rights-related cases in Russia in recent years including Pussy Riot and radical performance artist Pyotr Pavlensky.
They have highlighted a number of cases in which courts have imposed unduly harsh jail sentences on individuals for posting political views online in the Runet – this is the term given to the Russian-language section of the Internet.
One such case was that of Alexei Kungurov, a journalist, and blogger from Tyumen, a city in the Urals region of Russia. He was convicted by a military court in relation to postings he made online which were critical of the bombing campaign Russia has undertaken in Syria.
The crime he was convicted of was described as “publicly justifying terrorism” and the penalty for this supposed offence was a two year prison sentence.
Andrei Bubeyev, an electrical engineer from the city of Tver, in central Russia, was another case of note. He was taken to court after reposting an article which took a pro-Ukrainian stance to the ongoing dispute between Russia and Ukraine over Crimea. He also posted a mocked up image of a tube toothpaste with the words “squeeze Russia out of yourselves” on the side.
He was convicted of the crime of “supporting terrorist activity” as well as “breaches of Russia’s territorial integrity. In May last year, he was sentenced to two years and three months in a penal colony.
Enhance internet controls
According to Agora, the last twelve months have also seen numerous attempts by Russian legislator to enhance state internet controls still further.
They have recorded a total of 97 separate proposals from politicians and public servants to strengthen online controls; a quite remarkable number. As regular readers will know, they have had some significant successes including the blocking of LinkedIn across the country last November.
“The Russian authorities have begun to see the internet as a theatre of war, both inside and outside [the country]”, explained Agora as they presented their report in Moscow. These days, even the slightest criticism is “seen as like an armed attack.”
In addition to the strict controls and heavy online censorship which is now being deployed in Russia, there is also a hearts and minds campaign underway to persuade the Russia people to support the Government in such intrusive and oppressive activities. And as we have noted previously, this does seem to be having some effect, although whether this is out of genuine belief or fear of retribution is less clear.
Agora at least is clear on what the situation in Russia is at the moment. “The Runet has entered a state of martial law,” they conclude. It’s a bold statement, but on the basis of what they have uncovered in their report, one which few people would argue is too far wide of the mark.
For Russians who do want to be able to interact freely and safely online, a secure VPN such as IPVanish or ExpressVPN is still the best option. For those without such privacy and security tools at their disposal, the options seem to be either keep your head down or risk a prison sentence merely for speaking your mind.