LGBT children are among the victims harmed by the stifling of free speech, expression and access to information in Putin’s increasingly authoritarian Russia.
In a new report, Human Rights Watch has documented the significant restrictions to online speech and invasive surveillance of online activity under the guise of fighting extremism.
With a raft of laws and policies since 2012, Russian authorities have unjustifiably prosecuted dozens of people for criminal offenses on the basis of social media posts, online videos, media articles, and interviews, and shut down or blocked access to hundreds of websites and web pages.
While efforts to block political critics and opposition are behind many of these crackdowns, the LGBT community is particularly targeted through the notorious 2013 federal “LGBT propaganda” law.
Russian courts have found at least six people guilty of violating the law, which prohibits information that normalises “non-traditional sexual relations” or portrays them as acceptable and of equal value to heterosexual relationships.
In Russia, non-traditional sexual relations are broadly understood to mean relationships among LGBT people.
While Russian government officials and parliament members claim that the goal of the ban is to protect children from potentially harmful subject matter, Human Rights Watch said that “the law directly harms children by denying them access to essential information and creating a stigma against LGBT children and LGBT family members”.
The “propaganda” ban applies to information provided via press, television, radio, and the internet, and encompasses anything portraying LGBT relationships as normal or healthy. Online information deemed to represent “propaganda of non-traditional sexual relations” can be added to the country’s “internet blacklist” of banned websites.
Under the law, people found responsible for “promotion of non-traditional sexual relations” to any child under 18 face fines of up to 5,000 rubles (US$82); government officials face fines of 40,000 t0 50,000 ($660 to $826); and organisations, up to 1 million rubles ($16,521) or a suspension of activity for up to 90 days. Heavier fines may be imposed for the same actions if they are done through mass media and telecommunications, including the internet.
Human Rights Watch highlighted two particular instances of the law being used to block vital LGBT information online. One victim is the Deti-404 Online Group, which offers psychological support, advice, and a safe community for LGBT children.
Created on the Russian social media site VKontakte in April 2013 by Elena Klimova, an LGBT activist from Nizhny Tagil, the Deti-404 group had almost 66,000 followers.
Elena Klimova (Pic: Amnesty International)
The social media group was twice banned by the courts for violating the “security of children” in 2015 and removed from VKontakte. The group’s website has also been blocked since October 2016, following a court decision. In April 2016, Deti-404 started yet a third group on VKontakte which currently remains operational.
Another victim of the anti-LGBT law is rights activist Sergei Alekseenko who ran the legal and psychosocial LGBT support group Maximum. On January 18, 2016, a court in Murmansk fined Alekseenko 100,000 rubles (US$1,656) for items posted on Maximum’s website and social media account that contained positive information about LGBT relations.
Alekseenko told Human Rights Watch that one of the posts deemed “gay propaganda” was a re-post from another user’s account stating, “Children! To be gay means to be a person who is brave, strong, confident, persistent, who has a sense of dignity and self-respect.” Another post was a poem by the 19th century Russian writer Mikhail Lermontov, describing a sexual scene between two young men.
The Council of Europe, the UN Committee on the Rights of the Child, the Organization for Security and Co-operation in Europe, and the UN Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights have all condemned the LGBT propaganda law and called for it to repealed. However, Russia has made no moves to comply with these recommendations.