All eyes on Sochi: Free expression under fire in Russia

Olympic rings are displayed with images denoting Russian restrictions on free expression and freedom of information, discrimination due to sexual orientation and migrant's exploitation, as part of a protest by human rights organisations in Paris on February 1, 2014, a week before the 2014 Winter Olympics in Sochi. PHOTO: REUTERS/Gonzalo Fuentes
Wednesday, February 5, 2014

By Nouran Sedaghat

The 2014 Winter Olympics, slated to begin on February 7, in Sochi, have thrust Russia into the international spotlight. The Olympics traditionally present an opportunity to celebrate the culture and accomplishments of the host country on the world stage. However, troubling elements of Russia’s human rights record have left ample room for criticism despite the Kremlin’s attempt to mask the issues behind the allure of international spectacle.

Among the most alarming and pertinent human rights abuses that have been perpetrated by the Putin government are those with immediate implications for freedom of expression. As highlighted by PEN International’s “Out In The Cold” campaign, legislation such as the infamous anti-gay propaganda law and the blasphemy law, both passed by Parliament in 2013, serve to curtail expression as it takes both personal and public forms.

The anti-gay propaganda law prohibits the distribution of materials which normalize or promote non-traditional sexual relations to minors. In practice, this means that any pro-gay sentiments expressed in the public sphere could be subject to prosecution. As Russian LGBTQ activist Masha Gessen noted in an interview on The Current, any neutral or positive portrayals of same-sex relationships and LGBTQ people are prohibited from being accessible to minors. This effectively bans such portrayals in the mass media. PEN International has reported that a Russian newspaper, Molodoi Dalnevostochnik, was called into question for reporting on the firing of a gay schoolteacher. It also constitutes a ban on engaging in outward shows of support for the LGBTQ community, prohibiting the staging of rights rallies, the distribution of pro-rights materials, or even implying that heterosexual and homosexual relationships are equal to one another. In this way, the legislation threatens the right to freedom of expression in its public iteration, as well as constituting a draconian threat to the right to freedom of personal expression.

The blasphemy law is more explicitly linked to the fallout from female Russian punk group Pussy Riot’s “anti-Putin punk prayer,” performed in Moscow’s most famous cathedral. This new legislation allows a punishment of up to three years in prison for “offending religious feelings,” and the vague wording of the law leaves a concerning amount of room for interpretation and misapplication to a variety of circumstances. In combination, these regulations directly threaten the scores of journalists and civilian visitors descending upon Russia for the Games. More importantly however, these mandates represent a serious violation of the rights of Russian citizens, suggesting a standard of human rights that is simply unacceptable in view of the country’s responsibilities to the IOC and the international community.

The legislation clearly represents an unsightly blemish on Russia’s already lackluster human rights record. However, as noted by a petition instigated by Human Rights Watch, it takes on greater significance in view of the upcoming Olympic Winter Games. The organization notes that the anti-gay propaganda law promotes values that directly contradict the charter of the International Olympic Committee, which specifically dedicates itself to rejecting discrimination of any kind and preserving human dignity.

Unfortunately, the aforementioned legislation is not the only kind of Russian restriction posing a threat to free expression. The Committee to Protect Journalists recently released an extensive report outlining the culture of repression and censorship that has pervaded official coverage of the Games in Russia. Local media, whether state-owned or private, have been restricted to only reporting on events that have been officially cleared for coverage by the state. As a result, issues that have negatively impacted Sochi residents, such as evictions, violations of labour laws, and corruption in the Games’ construction, are all largely unreported. Sochi media outlets that receive government funding are also subject to censorship by the information department of the Sochi city administration. This can take several forms, including reviewing programs before they air, banning articles that may cast authorities in a negative light, and in some cases authorities even going so far as to script and stage interviews with local residents to ensure a positive portrayal of the city.

In light of these restrictions, the Sochi Games could be seen more as a cause for concern than celebration. Jane Buchanan, associate director for Human Rights Watch’s Europe and Central Asia Division, has likened these upcoming Olympics to the Summer 2008 games in Beijing, which were clouded by controversy over Internet access for international media outlets. Both experiences highlight the need for the establishment of human rights benchmarks as a precondition for countries seeking to host the Olympics. Buchanan also calls on international media outlets reporting on the Sochi Games to highlight taboo topics in their coverage of the events, encouraging them to focus on issues relevant to the daily lives of the Russian people in addition to the athletics.

Many NGOs are also encouraging civilian action to protest both the anti-gay propaganda law and restrictions on the media that threaten to compromise the integrity of the Sochi Games. As part of their Out In The Cold campaign, PEN International has outlined a list of suggested actions, important addresses, and Twitter handles and hashtags that people around the world can use to tell the Russian government that the country’s oppression of free expression is unacceptable. Human Rights Watch has also launched an open petition addressed to IOC President Thomas Bach, calling on him to demand the repeal of the anti-gay propaganda law in the face of the values advocated by the IOC charter. IFEX will be showcasing the campaigns and activities of all of its member organizations around the world using #WatchSochi.

With the grievous violations of the right to freedom of expression that have been perpetrated by the Russian government, it is imperative that the international community ensure that these measures be condemned by the international community. As the world’s eyes turn to Sochi, the opportunity to speak up and demand change has never been better.

Nouran Sedaghat is a former CJFE intern, currently completing her degree in political science and art history.