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Freedom of the media under attack across the former Soviet Union

Article by Katie Morris

May 24, 2016

Freedom of the media under attack across the former Soviet Union

Leaders in the majority of countries of the former Soviet Union have long viewed the expression of alternative viewpoints and dissent as a threat, establishing economic and legislative environments that stifle independent media and limit civic space. Since the Ukraine crisis, the climate for freedom of expression has deteriorated even further: having already brought traditional media to heel, authoritarian leaders are now focused on extinguishing the few remaining spaces for free expression – particularly the internet. National security is often invoked as a pretext for restricting free speech, although the extent and focus of repression differs according to country: [1]

  • In Russia, having ensured the dominance of state-owned or state-affiliated media, the government continues to employ legislative tools to silence the few remaining independent voices, increasingly refusing to tolerate any criticism of its policies, particularly with regard to Ukraine.
  • In Central Asia, Turkmenistan and Uzbekistan have long been among the most repressive states in the world, and continue to develop new means to prevent dissent. Concerned by the potential for spill-over from Ukraine, their declining economies and the threat from violent Islamic extremism, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan have undertaken a renewed clampdown on freedom of expression in the name of stability, targeting expression about inter-ethnic relations, protest, political Islam, minority religions and criticism of government. The speed of deterioration in Tajikistan, focused on the political opposition, is very alarming, while regression in Kyrgyzstan is also of concern, given earlier signs of reform.
  • The situation in Belarus remains stably repressive, while Azerbaijan seems to have used the diversion of events in Ukraine to accelerate a crackdown on all criticism of the government, waging a crude campaign of repression against independent journalists, bloggers and civil activists alike.
  • Finally, despite a far more positive environment for free expression following reforms post-Maidan, Ukraine is nevertheless failing to ensure a climate for pluralistic debate, and specifically with regard to those criticising the war effort or voicing pro-Russian opinions.


This essay addresses trends within three broad categories pertaining to increasing violations of the right to freedom of expression: 1) increasingly restrictive legislative environments, targeting the media online and offline, as well as expression more broadly; 2) the expansion of digital technologies, particularly surveillance, to crack down on freedom of expression; and 3) persecution and harassment of the few remaining independent media outlets, alongside bloggers and social media.


Increasingly restrictive legislative environments

The legislative environment is extremely dynamic across the region, with governments in several countries frequently amending existing legislation, in order to restrict freedom of expression, in violation of their obligations under international law. The development of legislation covering both media and the internet is often reactive or opportunistic, responding to specific social and political developments in the country, with the aim of preventing expression on sensitive topics, rather than constituting a plan to develop a coherent framework for media or internet regulation.


For example, in July 2014, Russian President Vladimir Putin approved amendments to Article 280 of the Criminal Code, increasing the liability for public calls to action aimed at violating the territorial integrity of the Russian Federation from three to four years and adding increased penalties for using the internet for such calls, stipulating a penalty of up to five years’ imprisonment.[2] This was designed to prevent criticism of the Russian government’s actions in Crimea, and has since been used against those speaking out on this topic, amidst widespread criticism from human rights groups that charges are groundless.[3] As the conflict continued, in May 2015, Putin extended the law on state secrets, in order to classify any information revealing Russian military casualties as a state secret, regardless of whether they occurred during times of war or peace,[4] presumably aimed at preventing the circulation of information about Russian military casualties during covert operations in Ukraine.


Meanwhile, in April 2014, Kazakhstan announced amendments to an existing law on ‘emergency situations’, requiring all media outlets operating in areas where a state of emergency has been declared to submit content to the government for approval prior to publication. While, in extremely limited circumstances, international law permits prior censorship in the interests of protecting national security during a public emergency which threatens the life of the country, this provision is open to abuse as it assumes an automatic derogation from the right to freedom of expression allowing for unnecessary application. Moreover, Kazakhstan lacks safeguards to prevent arbitrary invocation of a state of emergency – for example during times of protest. Adil Soz, a Kazakh media rights advocacy group, believes that the amendments provide a legal basis for the government to prevent the dissemination of information about unrest in Kazakhstan, responding to fears that Kazakhstan might see its own Maidan movement, inspired by events in Ukraine.[5]


Ukraine adopted a package of four laws in May 2015, introducing criminal penalties for propaganda of Communist and/or Nazi regimes and their symbols, providing for up to 10 years in prison for repeated offences or if committed using the media.[6] Since its introduction, the legislation has been used to ban Ukraine’s Communist Party,[7] and has been criticised by the Venice Commission of the Council of Europe for including overly broad provisions that could ‘stifl[e] public debate about… modern Ukrainian history’, as well as explicitly targeting the media, ‘enabl[ing] the authorities to shut down media and/or control media output at their discretion.’[8] The legislation is symptomatic of Ukraine’s desire to cut itself off from its history and extinguish pro-Russian feeling.


The greatest novelty over the past few years is the extension of legislation regulating mass media to explicitly include internet resources – as we have seen in Kazakhstan (2009); Russia (2010; 2014); and Belarus and Uzbekistan (2014).[9] Theoretically, this may confer additional rights and protections for people publishing on the internet; however in reality, given the regressive nature of media law in the region, this confers burdensome requirements on independent journalists and bloggers. Such legislative changes allow for a more efficient crack down on online speech, by increasing internet users’ liability to broadly worded criminal charges, and providing stronger penalties where prohibited information is disseminated on a website recognised as mass media.[10] In some cases, distribution of content specifically over the internet may act as an aggravating feature, thereby incurring additional sanctions – for example, this is the case in Russia regarding incitement to extremism and incitement to separatism, following 2014 amendments to the criminal code.[11] Meanwhile, amendments to the Law on Informatisation in Uzbekistan introduced criminal charges for content posted exclusively online.[12]


Governments are using such legislation to explicitly target bloggers and independent/non-affiliated journalists – the only people still providing independent and critical assessments of events in country – who do not have sufficient resources to comply with extensive media law provisions, nor to protect themselves against extremely broadly worded criminal charges. If facing criminal charges, few have the means to mount any sort of defence, encouraging self-censorship. The clearest example is Russia’s infamous Bloggers Law, which requires bloggers with more than 3,000 daily visitors to register with Roskomnadzor, the state media regulatory body, and to comply with the same legislation as traditional media.[13] Uzbekistan’s Law on Informatisation also expanded the definition of a blogger to include any ‘physical person, who posts on his/her website and/or pages of others’ websites on the Internet generally accessible information of a socio-political, economic and other nature, particularly for its discussion by users,’[14] and imposed extremely burdensome requirements on them, including an obligation to verify the truthfulness of information before posting.


Authorities have also sought to limit access to information by introducing new legislation and strengthening the powers of regulatory bodies to block online content without a court order, in violation of international standards.[15]


In December 2013, the Russian Law on Information, Information Technologies and the Protection of Information was amended to grant the Prosecutor General and his deputies the power to directly order Roskomnadzor to block information deemed to contain illegal content such as incitement to unsanctioned public protests and to ‘extremist’ activities.[16] Combined with 2012 amendments to the Law on Protection of Children, which allowed Roskomnadzor to blacklist and remove information deemed harmful to children, this further strengthened the authorities’ ability to arbitrarily remove content and removed safeguards that allow content owners to challenge unfair removal. Changes to the Russian law were swiftly followed by amendments to legislation in Belarus, Kazakhstan and Uzbekistan, enabling relevant government bodies to block websites without court orders – often on arbitrarily defined grounds of national security.[17]


States use blocking as a crude way to try to regulate the internet and limit the freedom to exchange information and ideas online, rather than focusing on legitimate restrictions, recognised under international law, such as child pornography. Indeed sites across the region are regularly blocked by governments in order to stifle dissent. A notable case of this is the blocking of various social media and independent news websites in Tajikistan on the evening of 4 October 2014, following the publication of critical reports about the government of Tajikistan, as well as open letters by the opposition movement ‘Group 24’, based outside Tajikistan, calling on people to gather for an anti-government rally in Dushanbe.[18] In Russia, opposition sites,, and, have been blocked since March 2014 on the grounds that they ‘contain calls for illegal activity and participation in public events held in violation of the established order.’[19]


A lack of transparency over blocking processes makes it very difficult for website owners to challenge decisions to remove content. In Central Asian states, governments frequently deny having blocked websites[20]; while in Russia, notices from Roskomnadzor to remove content do not need to specify what content was problematic or why. Failure to respond to a warning to take down the content within 24 hours, however, can lead to the website in question being completely blocked and the imposition of serious administrative sanctions. Such lack of clarity leads to self-censorship to prevent websites being blocked. Alongside these relatively newer legislative projects, numerous broadly worded charges remain on the Criminal Codes of countries across the region – and some have had their scope or penalties extended – and are evoked in similar ways across the region to supress dissent. Defamation charges remain a widely used tool for preventing criticism of government officials and public figures. Despite positive overtures towards reform a few years ago, a number of countries have recently strengthened defamation provisions and continue to actively apply them.


For example, Russia decriminalised defamation in 2011, only to reintroduce defamation as a criminal offence in 2012 on Putin’s return to the presidency. Meanwhile, despite partially decriminalising defamation in 2011;[21] Kyrgyzstan adopted amendments to its criminal code in 2014, undermining any progress, by introducing a clause prohibiting the dissemination of ‘knowingly false messages about the commission of crimes’, effectively re-criminalising defamation. A month previously, Kazakhstan, which already had eight criminal provisions prohibiting defamation, amended its criminal code to include a new offence of ‘knowingly disseminating false information’, which includes both facts and opinions and provides for up to 10 years in prison. Even where defamation has been fully or partially decriminalised – for example in Tajikistan – excessive civil defamation cases, which lack fair protections and defences, provide a mechanism to prevent criticism of governments and stifle small media outlets.[22]


States also retain various legislative acts and criminal charges with the stated aim of preventing violent extremism. While this is a legitimate aim in itself, such laws fail to precisely define ‘extremism’, or other key terms[23], and confer broad powers on the state, which allow for disproportionate restrictions on the right to freedom of expression.[24] These are aggressively used throughout the region. In Russia, where a court may order the closure of media outlets and websites if it deems them extremist, Roskomnadzor frequently issues warnings on spurious matters to newspapers and websites, whereby three such warnings precipitates a court trial to consider closure.[25] Similarly, clauses included in criminal codes aimed at preventing incitement to discrimination, hostility or violence, a legitimate aim under international law, lack clear definitions, enabling arbitrary application.[26]


The expansion of digital technologies to crack down on freedom of expression

Governments have sought to strengthen their surveillance powers, to increase state access to communications (both private and on social media), while also cracking down on anonymity and encryption. Given high levels of censorship and regressive legislation, this poses a significant threat to freedom of expression, where anonymity is vital to allow individuals to meaningfully express themselves – a fact recognised by the United Nations Special Rapporteur on Freedom of Expression.[27]


Since the late 1990s, Russia has gradually increased the capabilities of its ‘System for Operational Investigative Measures’ (SORM), initially developed in the Soviet Union, which requires Internet Service Providers to install equipment that directs all internet traffic to an FSB terminal – enabling them to monitor all internet activity, including private communications.[28] Some level of SORM capabilities almost certainly exists in other post-Soviet countries; although it is difficult to assess the extent of this given the lack of transparency around questions of national security. Certainly, increasingly alarmed about the threat of popular protest, other states in the region have looked to expand their SORM capabilities: since 2011, Belarus, Ukraine and Kyrgyzstan have all used Russian technology suppliers to update their systems.[29]


At the same time, a number of states have sought to outlaw anonymity. For example, in Russia Roskomnadzor stated that the aim of the infamous ‘Bloggers’ Law’, which requires real name registration of bloggers, was to de-anonymise popular internet pages to ensure that those writing online could be held responsible for what they publish.[30] Belarus has legislated to ban anonymisers, which allow internet users to circumnavigate censorship and access banned resources.[31] Several states, including Kazakhstan and Tajikistan, routinely block anonymising sites.[32]


Governments have long sought to regulate encryption technologies, while Kazakhstan has looked to go even further and ensure government access to encrypted data, announcing in December 2015, that all internet users would need to install a ‘national security certificate’ that would act as intermediary between them, and websites, allowing the government to access all encrypted transactions occurring within the country.[33] It is currently not clear if this will go ahead, however, as it is difficult to understand how it would be technologically implemented.


Harassment and intimidation of independent media and bloggers

Pervasive surveillance and broadly-worded, aggressive legislation expedite the application of charges to silence independent media or bloggers writing about abuse of power or expressing dissent. This is facilitated by ambiguous interpretation of laws and the absence of an independent, impartial judiciary.


There are two broad approaches to the application of criminal charges to restrict expression: first, the abuse of broadly-termed legislation and charges, outlined in section one, which gives a veneer of legality to politically-motivated prosecutions; and second, the more crude application of trumped up criminal charges, such as blackmail, fraud or narcotics. While Russia has increasingly focused on the first approach,[34] Azerbaijan, which has led the most aggressive crackdown on freedom of expression of any state in recent years, tends to have favoured the latter.[35] Meanwhile, the most repressive states, including Kazakhstan, Tajikistan and Uzbekistan, employ a combination of the two – often applying multiple charges against those they deem a threat.[36]


It would be impossible to list all examples of the abuse of criminal charges to restrict public interest journalism in this publication. Some of the most egregious recent cases include:

  • In Azerbaijan, Khadija Ismayilova, an independent award-winning journalist who prominently investigated government corruption in Azerbaijan, remains in prison. She was jailed in December 2014 and sentenced on 1 September 2015 to seven and a half years on charges of libel, tax evasion, illegal business activity and abuse of power.[37]
  • In Kazakhstan, in November 2015, Yaroslav Golyshkin, the editor-in-chief of Versiya, an independent newspaper in Kazakhstan, was convicted to eight years in prison on charges of financial extortion. The charges were made after the newspaper published an article implicating a local Governor’s son in the rape of a woman.[38]
  • In Russia, Sergey Reznik, known for investigative reporting on corruption in Southern Russia, received three years imprisonment on charges of insult and misleading authorities. He was already serving an 18 month sentence on similar charges.[39]
  • In Tajikistan, Mahmadyusuf Ismoilov, a journalist from Asht known for his reporting on corruption among local authorities, was sentenced to eleven years in prison in April 2014, after being convicted on charges of blackmail and fraud.[40]


Worryingly, and despite progress on media freedoms, Ukraine has also applied unfounded criminal charges to silence unwanted expression. Ruslan Kotsaba, a blogger and journalist, has been held in pre-trial detention since February 2015, after he was arrested on charges of treason and obstructing the work of the armed forces, following the publication of a video on YouTube, in which he criticised the armed conflict in Eastern Ukraine and called upon Ukrainians to reject military conscription.[41] International standards set a high threshold for determining when speech may be restricted, which Kotsaba’s video clearly did not meet. As such, the decision to prosecute him is an attempt to silence legitimate expression considered undesirable by the Ukrainian state. As well as targeting well known journalists, criminal charges are increasingly brought against ordinary internet users, many of whom have limited influence over others. The purpose of such prosecutions, which are often widely covered in local media, seems to be to set precedents of impermissible speech, and to encourage self-censorship among the internet community.


In February 2016, a Russian court in Yekaterinburg sentenced Ekaterina Vologzheninova to 320 hours of ‘corrective labour’ for ‘inciting hatred and enmity on the grounds of ethnicity’, following posts on the social media site, Vkontakte, criticising Russia’s annexation of Crimea.[42] A month later, Viktor Krasnov, a resident of Stavropol, was charged with insult of the religious convictions or feelings of citizens, following comments on the social media site, Vkontakte, in which he crudely criticised God and the Bible.[43] In both cases, human rights activists who have viewed the texts in question believe the charges to be unfounded. Meanwhile, in March 2015, a Kazakh court convicted Tatiana Shevtsova-Valova under Article 174 of the Criminal Code, ‘incitement to hatred’, after posting comments on Facebook in support of the policy of Russia in the conflict with the Ukraine, which were deemed as insulting ethnic Kazakhs.[44] She was the first social media user to be prosecuted for incitement online, and received a four-year suspended sentence. Throughout the year, incitement charges were brought against several other bloggers and social media users.[45]



[1] This essay focuses primarily on the context in countries where ARTICLE 19 is working.

[2] RFE/RL, ‘Putin Toughens Punishment For Public Calls For Separatism’, 22 July 2016

[3] For example, in September 2105 a Russian Court in Tartarstan sentenced Rafis Kashapov, an activist, to three years in prison on charges of undermining Russia’s territorial integrity and inciting hostility towards the Russian people following his posts on social media, including a piece titled “Crimea and Russia Will be Free from the Occupants!” (See: Human Rights Watch, ‘Dispatches: Russia, Crimea, and the Shrinking Space for Free Speech’, 28 September 2015,

[4] The Guardian, Vladimir Putin declares all Russian military deaths state secrets,

[5] RFE/RL, Kazakhstan’s Emergency Media Law, 8 April 2014

[6] Kharkiv Human Rights Protection Group, Ukraine’s Decommunisation Law hammered by Venice Commission for violating democratic standards, 12 December 2015,

[7] Amnesty International, Ukraine: Communist Party ban decisive blow for freedom of speech in the country’, 17 December 2015

[8] Venice Commission Opinion no. 823/2015 ODIHR Opinion no. FOE-UKR/280/2015 CDL-AD(2015) 041, Joint Interim Opinion on the Law of Ukraine on the Condemnation of the Communist and National Socialist (Nazi) Regimes and Prohibition of Propaganda of their Symbols’, Adopted by the Venice Commission at its 105th Plenary Session Venice (18-19 December 2015),

[9] In 2009, Kazakhstan amended its Mass Media law to recognise all internet resources, including blogs, discussion platforms and social media sites, as mass media outlets. A year later, Russia passed a law allowing mass media regulation to apply to internet resources; and in August 2014, Russia’s so-called “Bloggers Law”, entered into force requiring bloggers with more than 3,000 daily visitors to register with Roskomnadzor and to comply with laws governing mass media. In 2014, Belarus amended its Law on Mass Media; and Uzbekistan, its Law on Informatisation, to extend Mass Media law to cover a larger array of internet resources, including bloggers.

[10] The Criminal Codes of Belarus, Russia, Kazakhstan and Uzbekistan all include increased penalties for certain crimes when committed by a mass media outlet – for example, in Belarus, media outlets face more severe penalties for libel; defamation; insult of the President; calls to harm Belarus’s national security; in Kazakhstan, media face more severe penalties for defamation, libel and insult charges, and calls to separatism or terrorism.

[11] SOVA Centre, ‘Inappropriate Use of Anti-Extremist Legislation from January 2014 through August 2015, in Brief’, 10 September 2015

[12] IRIS 2014-10:1/32, Uzbekistan Statute regulates blogging,

[13] Human Rights Watch, ‘Russia: Veto Law to Restrict Online Freedom’ 24 April 2016

[14] IRIS 2014-10:1/32, Uzbekistan Statute regulates blogging,

[15] The UN Special Rapporteur on Freedom of Expression has clearly stated that blocking provisions should be clearly laid out by law; any determination on what content should be blocked must be undertaken by a competent judicial authority and any blocking decision must be based on a clear law, necessary and proportionate. (See:

[16] Cappello M. (ed.), Regulation of online content in the Russian Federation, IRIS extra, European Audiovisual Observatory, Strasbourg, 2015

[17] Freedom House, Freedom on the Net 2014,

[18] ARTICLE 19 and PEN International, Submission to the UN Universal Periodic Review of Tajikistan, September 2015,,-PEN-Intl-&-English-PEN-Submission-to-UPR-of-Tajikistan.pdf

[19] Human Rights Watch, Russia: Halt Orders to Block Online Media, 23 March 2014

[20] For example Tajikistan denies involvement in the blocking of social media sites on 3rd October (described above):

[21] The Telegraph, ‘OSCE hails Kyrgyzstan decision to decriminalise libel’, 19 July 2011,

[22] For example, in February 2013, a Dushanbe district ordered the newspaper, Imruz News, to pay 50,000 Somoni (approximately USD 8,000) in compensation for “moral harm” under Article 174 of the Civil Code, which protects honour, dignity and business reputation. The case concerned an article published in 2012 about the son of Rustam Khukumov, head of the Tajik Rail Road, who was sentenced to 9.5 years imprisonment in Russia for involvement in narcotics trafficking and later released in a prisoner exchange for Russian pilots in Tajikistan. The defence argued that it was reasonable to publish the article, as it did not contain offensive material, and was based on information published in many Russian newspapers. (See: ARTICLE 19 and PEN International, Submission to the UN Universal Periodic Review of Tajikistan, September 2015,,-PEN-Intl-&-English-PEN-Submission-to-UPR-of-Tajikistan.pdf

[23] Kazakh legislation prevents the ‘promotion’ or ‘glorification’ of extremism.

[24] For example, the Kyrgyz Law On Countering Extremist Activity enables the authorities and the prosecutor’s office to demand the dissolution of NGOs and religious organisations engaged in ‘extremism activity in violation of human rights’. Similarly, the activities of mass media involved in the distribution of extremist materials may be terminated. In the absence of a clear definition of ‘extremist activity’ or what constitutes a ‘violation of human rights’ this is a very broad power, which is clearly open to abuse.[24] For example, see: ARTICLE 19 Legal Analysis, ‘Kyrgyzstan: Law on Countering Extremist Activity’, December 2015, Similarly, the Russian Law on Extremism.

[25] U.S. Department of State, Bureau of Democracy, Human Rights and Labor, ‘Country Reports on Human Rights Practices for 2015: Russia

[26] See for example, Freedom House, Freedom on the Net 2015: Kazakhstan, This charge has been criticised by the European Parliament (

[27] Report of the Special Rapporteur on the promotion and protection of the right to freedom of opinion and expression, A/HRC/23/40, 17/04/2013, PARA 47.

[28] CSIS, Reference Note on Russian Communications Surveillance, 18 April 2014,

[29] Privacy International, In ex-Soviet states, Russian spy tech still watches you, 10 January 2013,

[30] The Calvert Journal, ‘Mass media law for bloggers comes into effect’, 01 August 2014,

[31] Global Voice, ‘Belarus Bans Tor and Other Anonymizers’, 25 March 2015

[32] Freedom House, ‘Freedom on the Net 2015: Kazakhstan’,; Eurasianet, Tajikistan Blocks Websites Again, Holds Anti-Riot Simulation, 6 October 2014

[33] Digital Report, ‘Experts Concerned Kazakhstan Plans to Monitor Users’ Encrypted Traffic’, 5 December 2015

[34] See, for example, the SOVA Centre for extensive monitoring on how anti-terror legislation is applied in Russia (

[35] Although this has been expedited by changes to legislation governing NGOs, increasing the vulnerability of activists and human rights defenders to criminal charges concerning financial crimes.

[36] An example of this is the ongoing campaign against, successor to Respublika, an independent newspaper which was highly critical of the Kazakh authorities, until its closure was forced in 2012, on charges of extremism. In December 2015, charges of narcotics possession were brought against Yuliya Kozlova, a journalist with the paper, who was acquitted in a rare not-guilty verdict in February 2016. The site’s owner, Guzyal Baydalinova remains in pre-trial detention, charged with “deliberately spreading false information”. See:

[37] The Guardian, ‘Azerbaijan journalist Khadija Ismayilova vows to continue fight from prison’. 1 September 2015

[38] Open Dialogue Foundation, ‘Kazakhstan: The oppression of journalists and bloggers’, 22 January 2016,kazakhstan-the-oppression-of-journalists-and-bloggers1

[39] Committee to Protect Journalists, ‘Imprisoned Russian journalist sentenced to new three-year jail term’, 22 January 2015

[40] ARTICLE 19, Central Asia: Legalised harassment of journalists must stop, 8 September 2016

[41] ARTICLE 19, ‘Ukraine: Government must release blogger imprisoned for over a year on treason charges’ 9 February 2016

[42] Human Rights in Russia, ‘Person of the Week: Ekaterina Vologzheninova’, 29 February 2016,

[43] RFE/RL, ‘Russian Man Could Be Jailed For Saying God Doesn’t Exist’, 2 March 2016

[44] RFE/RL, ‘The Victims Of Kazakhstan’s Article 174, 2 March 2016,

[45] Ibid

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