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Freedom of expression remains under severe threat following presidential elections, says ARTICLE 19

(ARTICLE 19/IFEX) - The following is a 4 March 2008 ARTICLE 19 press release:

Russia: Following Presidential Elections, Freedom of Expression Remains Under Severe Threat

ARTICLE 19 expresses strong concern at trends in Russia that threaten the right to freedom of expression and information. Inconsistent application of unduly restrictive legislation, in particular new provisions on extremist activity, as well as physical attacks and harassment of non-governmental organisations and independent media have created a climate in which the right to free expression cannot fully be exercised.

Attacks on journalists continued in the run up to last Sunday's elections. Since January at least four attacks on journalists have been recorded, and in no case have the attackers been found or charged. The murders in 2004 and 2006 of prominent journalists Paul Klebnikov and Anna Politkovskaya remain unsolved.

Journalists continue to be detained by law enforcement agencies in the normal course of their work. Since January 2008, two oppositional newspapers in St Petersburg and Tolyatti have had their computers seized on suspicion of using counterfeit software. On 26 January, ten journalists were detained while covering an opposition rally in Nazran and deported to a neighbouring region. Later, on 13 February, Magomed Yevloyev, owner of the opposition website Ingushetiya.ru, was detained and charged with organising disturbances that occurred at the rally.

The organisation Voice of Beslan, a pressure group formed to represent the victims of the Beslan school hostage tragedy in 2004, is the subject of three ongoing cases. It is charged with extremist activity for a statement which appeared in 2005 on its website accusing the government of incompetence in the handling of the Beslan tragedy and Vladimir Putin of being a supporter of criminals. In an administrative case it is charged with illegal placing of a road sign: during a November 2007 protest activists erected a sign reading "Putin's Way", with an arrow pointing to Beslan's destroyed school No. 1. Three of Voice of Beslan's leaders are also charged with disturbing the order of a court over an incident on 8 February in which they accused a judge of using forged documents as the basis for an earlier decision to liquidate the organisation, which was eventually overturned by the Russian Supreme Court.

Under amendments to the Law on Counteracting Extremist Activity made in 2007, libel or slander of a public official may be classed as an extremist activity. Defamation is a criminal offence punishable by up to four years in prison. Of particular concern is that defamation legislation affords special protection against insult to government officials while carrying out their duties, potentially allowing the law to be used to shield them from criticism.

ARTICLE 19 calls upon authorities to:

a. Take effective measures to prevent attacks against, killing and disappearances of media workers and, when they do occur, carry out thorough and impartial investigations with a view to bringing the perpetrators to justice
b. Ensure full investigations of unsolved murders of journalists
c. End legislative harassment of Voice of Beslan
d. Amend the Law on Counteracting Extremist Activity, to ensure that individuals are not found guilty of extremist activity unless they intend to incite terrorism and there is a likelihood that violence will occur imminently as a result of their statements. Similarly, if these conditions are not met, literature should not be subjected to bans
e. Decriminalise defamation, or at a minimum abolish imprisonment as a penalty for defamation, and ensure that any financial penalty imposed on the defendant is proportionate
f. Ensure that defamation provisions are not abused to shield the authorities, including courts, from criticism.

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