Stepping up Russia’s war on reliable and independent online reporting, the federal communications agency Roskomnadzor blocked access to the OVD-Info site on 25 December and called on social media platforms to shut down its accounts, which would result in its complete disappearance.
This media outlet, which documents detentions during protests and cases of political harassment, is used as a reference source by many publications and NGOs both in Russia and internationally, including RSF.
“After eliminating nearly all independent media by targeting their owners to influence editorial policy, censoring articles and blocking websites by means of both judicial and extra-judicial methods, the Russian authorities are now targeting social media platforms,” said Jeanne Cavelier, the head of RSF’s Eastern Europe and Central Asia desk.
“The request by Roskomnadzor, a digital press freedom predator, is unacceptable. It not only violates Russia’s constitution and its international obligations, but also deprives its citizens of an information source essential to the public debate. We urge Meta (Facebook and Instagram), Google (YouTube), Twitter and Telegram to act in accordance with the principles they proclaim by refusing to delete the accounts of media outlets such OVD-Info. We have also referred this matter to the special rapporteurs of the United Nations, OSCE and Council of Europe so that they take action on OVD-Info’s behalf.”
Russia has been stepping up pressure on international platforms. On the eve of blocking OVD-Info, Roskomnadzor imposed unprecedented fines on Google and Facebook – proportional to their turnover – for displaying Roskomnadzor-banned content despite repeated requests for its removal.
Google is required to pay 7.2 billion roubles (86.5 million euros) and Facebook nearly two billion roubles (about 24 million euros). Laws adopted at the end of 2020 provide for penalties of up to 20% of annual sales. The Russian search engine Yandex meanwhile no longer displays OVD-info content. RSF supports OVD-Info's petition asking international platforms not to turn into additional “censorship tools.” As of today, more than 67,000 people have signed it.
OVD-Info has also been targeted by the justice ministry, which added it to the list of “foreign agents” on 29 September. This defamatory label – based on a vaguely-worded law, and accompanied by harsh administrative constraints and the risk of legal proceedings – has been much used by the authorities since the end of 2020 to intimidate journalists and sow confusion.
It was alleged repeated "violations" of this law that were used by the authorities as grounds for disbanding the NGO Memorial on 28 December, dealing a major blow to the defence of freedoms in Russia, especially freedom of expression.
This context increases the importance of international platforms to press freedom in Russia, as stressed in a new edition of RSF’s report on Internet censorship in Russia. According to a survey in February 2021 by the Levada Centre, an independent organisation that conducts opinion polls, social media are now the second most important source of national and international political news for the Russian public, after television. The report describes the mechanisms used to restrict freedom of the press and expression in Russia, including the myriad laws employed to silence criticism.
Russia is ranked 150th out of 180 countries in RSF's 2021 World Press Freedom Index.