WASHINGTON – The Moscow bureau of Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty (RFE/RL LLC) today petitioned the European Court of Human Rights on an urgent basis, asking the court to grant interim measures ordering the Russian Federation to refrain from enforcing the 520 “administrative protocols” that it has brought or threatened against the media organization since January 2021. These interim measures, if granted, would be in place until the court can rule on the lawfulness of the Russian Government’s unprecedented actions.
RFE/RL LLC argues that Russia’s actions violate the rights to freedom of expression and freedom of the press protected by Article 10 of the European Convention on Human Rights, and that if the Court does not act now, RFE/RL LLC and its general director, Andrey Shary, will suffer irreversible harms. RFE/RL LLC also warns that, left unchecked, the Kremlin’s campaign will have a profound chilling effect on what is left of the independent media in the Russian Federation. The Court has granted interim measures in the past where there have been allegations of governmental interference with the media.
Following Russia’s crackdown on freedom of the press over the past decade, RFE/RL is now one of the few remaining news organizations operating in Russia that provides independent reporting in the Russian language on matters of public interest. In recent years RFE/RL has been one of the few outlets providing independent coverage of Russia’s 2014 annexation of Crimea, state corruption, the COVID-19 pandemic, and the treatment of Russian opposition leader Aleksei Navalny. Each week nearly 7 million people (6.5% of Russian adults) access RFE/RL’s news portals in Russia.
In late 2017, eight of RFE/RL’s news outlets were designated “foreign agents” by the Russian Ministry of Justice under the country’s controversial foreign agent law. The law has been condemned by the European Parliament and other international bodies as an infringement of fundamental freedoms. RFE/RL and its news services are the only international media outlets with a physical presence in the Russian Federation to have been designated “foreign agents.”
Since October 30, 2020, Russia’s media and telecommunications agency, Roskomnadzor, has ordered foreign media organizations designated as “foreign agents” to label every news article, social media post, and piece of audio-visual content with a prominent written warning (or 15-second oral statement) that the media content has been created by a foreign media outlet “performing the functions of a foreign agent.” While RFE/RL has complied with all of its legal obligations under the foreign agents law, it has declined to implement this new labelling requirement, which is clearly intended to damage its reputation and viability as an independent media organization in Russia.
Roskomnadzor’s response has been to issue 390 administrative cases against RFE/RL LLC and Mr. Shary in the Russian courts over a period of three months, with fines totaling over RUB 107.25 million (approximately US $1,430,000). Tomorrow, Roskomnadzor is due to begin filing an additional 130 cases against RFE/RL LLC and Mr. Shary, with additional fines estimated at RUB 71.5 million (nearly US $1 million). If the fines proceed at the present rate, they are likely to reach RUB 2.5 billion (approximately US $33 million) by the end of the year.
RFE/RL has appealed every one of the hundreds of cases, but not a single court has upheld RFE/RL’s legal challenges or decreased the levels of the fines imposed by Roskomnadzor. Beginning on May 2, 2021, RFE/RL and Mr. Shary will become liable for a series of fines that will soon reach US $2,430,000. If these fines are not paid, the Russian authorities have the power to place RFE/RL into insolvency and/or to block access to its media sites. Mr. Shary faces the prospect of a prison sentence of up to two years and personal bankruptcy.
RFE/RL president Jamie Fly commented that “RFE/RL will not be put in a position of undermining freedom of speech and journalistic integrity. >We will not allow Roskomnadzor and the Kremlin to make editorial decisions about how we engage our audiences in Russia. We are hopeful that the European Court of Human Rights will view these actions by the Government of Russia for what they are: an attempt to suppress free speech and the human rights of the Russian people, and a dangerous precedent at a time when independent media are under assault around the globe.”
RFE/RL is represented in the European Court of Human Rights by barrister Can Yeginsu of 4 New Square Chambers, instructed by the international law firm, Covington & Burling LLP.
RFE/RL relies on its networks of local reporters to provide accurate news and information to more than 41 million people every week in 27 languages and 23 countries where media freedom is restricted, or where a professional press has not fully developed. Its videos were viewed 6.5 billion times on Facebook, YouTube, and Instagram/IGTV in FY2020. RFE/RL is an editorially independent media company funded by a grant from the U.S. Congress through the U.S. Agency for Global Media.