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Election marred by free expression violations

Police officers try to detain a journalist from
Police officers try to detain a journalist from "Kommersant" during a 6 December rally in Moscow protesting the results of the parliamentary elections


As Russians voted this week in parliamentary elections, censorship, coordinated cyber-attacks, and arrests of journalists and bloggers were carried out in an apparent bid to suppress allegations of electoral fraud and criticism of the ruling party, report the Glasnost Defence Foundation (GDF) and the Center for Journalism in Extreme Situations (CJES), among other IFEX members.

At least nine reporters, photographers and bloggers were among 300 briefly arrested on 5 December while covering a protest attended by thousands in Moscow against alleged fraud at Sunday's parliamentary election, says Reporters Without Borders (RSF). Most were released, but leading opposition blogger Alexey Navalny and the publisher of the Russian edition of "Forbes" magazine, Alexey Kamensky, have been charged with obstructing police and face 15 days in jail.

"There was no justification for preventing journalists from covering a political event of this importance," RSF said. "It was their job to cover it. The media should not have to pay the price of the government's paranoia."

The election was widely seen as a test of Vladimir Putin's popularity before his expected return to the presidency next year. Although Putin's party, United Russia, won, its support dropped from 70 percent to roughly 50 percent of the vote. Opposition supporters claimed the loss would have been far greater had it not been for voting irregularities.

IFEX members and other critics, including former Soviet President Mikhail Gorbachev, have said the parliamentary election was marred by fraud. They accused the authorities of violations across the country leading up to and during election day, from ballot stuffing to pressuring students and employees to vote for United Russia.

"The country's leaders must admit there were numerous falsifications and rigging and the results do not reflect the people's will," Gorbachev said.

The Western-financed electoral watchdog Golos and several liberal media outlets, such as Ekho Moskvy radio station and online news portal, said their sites were shut down at 8am on election day by hackers intent on silencing allegations of electoral violations, report RSF, CJES and GDF.

"Massive cyber attacks are taking place on the sites of Golos and the map showing violations," Golos said on Twitter.

Golos said they suspected interference by state authorities. "I believe that nobody but government structures and the FSB [Security Service] is capable of conducting such a campaign," Golos executive director Liliya Shibanova told reporters.

Freedom House said it was concerned by "a pattern of harassment" against the watchdog - which has included illegal raids, slanderous articles in government-controlled outlets, trumped-up charges and fines, and exclusion from several polling booths on election day.

On 3 December, customs officers held Shibanova for 12 hours at a Moscow airport and had her computer confiscated for potentially posing a threat to national security.

Moscow prosecutors launched an investigation last week into Golos's activities after parliamentarians objected to its Western financing.

"The campaign against Golos is yet another reason to raise serious questions about the legitimacy, openness, and competitiveness of Russia's parliamentary election," said Freedom House.

Some attacks began a few days before the elections. LiveJournal, a site that hosts many anti-government blogs, was inaccessible for three days beginning on 1 December, reports RSF.
Most of the sites became accessible again as voting stations were about to close.

Opposition journalists and bloggers, including Alexey Sochnev, the editor of the independent news website, and well-known blogger Maria Plieva, were briefly arrested during the last few days before the election, says RSF, and some were barred from voting stations on the day.

Opposition parties said the election was unfair from the start because of authorities' support for United Russia with cash and television air time.

And then there was the censorship. In November, GDF reported at least 17 cases of newspapers having their copies seized before they hit the newsstands.

The authorities even resorted to printing newspaper "doppelgangers" - papers that looked identical to opposition or popular papers, but contain pro-government content. GDF listed false copies of "Novaya Gazeta" in Moscow and "Argumenty i facti" in Izhevsk as examples.

President Dmitry Medvedev, who is stepping aside so that Putin can return to the presidency next year, has dismissed talk of electoral fraud.

While the demonstrations began as a protest against the election results, most of the slogans have been against Putin, reports the BBC. Messages on Twitter and other social media, used to co-ordinate the earlier protests, are fixing Saturday, 10 December as the date for the next demonstrations.

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