The ongoing violations of the right to freedom of association, peaceful assembly and expression, and particularly the labelling of civil society groups as “foreign agents,” is intended to force associations to close operations or self-censor, said CIVICUS, global alliance of civil society organisations. Russia is experiencing the most severe restrictions on civic space in decades as the authorities use legislation on “foreign agents” or “undesirable organisations” to restrict the activities of civil society organisations and subject their leaders and members to judicial persecution.
On 29 September 2021, the Ministry of Justice listed the Media Human Rights Project OVD-Info as one of the organisations designated as a “foreign agent.” The inclusion of OVD-Info on the list of organisations accused of functioning as a foreign agent is a direct response to OVD-Info’s civil society campaign against legislation used by the authorities to smear and stigmatise civil society groups. More than 229 organisations and over 154,000 people across Russia joined the campaign. OVD-Info is an independent media project focusing on human rights and political persecutions, which also tracks and monitors persecution of protesters in Russia. It depends on volunteers and donations to do its work and calls on the Russian authorities to respect the Constitution and other European Conventions on human rights.
Russia has often been known for targeting civil society organisations, opposition figures and human rights defenders. However, human rights violations have reached unprecedented levels as the authorities routinely use legislation to stigmatise civil society organisations and prosecute their leaders and members. The international community must intervene now to prevent a total dismantling of civil society, said Sylvia Mbataru, civic space researcher at CIVICUS.
Those included on the list on 29 September are members of the civil society group Golos that monitors elections and journalists from the media rights body Mediazoma. Organisations listed as foreign agents are required to undergo cumbersome administrative procedures and indicate their status as “foreign agents” in all official correspondence and materials. Media organisations designated as foreign face challenges collaborating with advertisers and partners and are hindered from doing interviews as few people would want to be associated with “foreign agents.” Several associations have been forced to close down while many more now self-censor as representatives of civil society are also subjected to judicial persecution.
Over the last several months, the Russian authorities have increased restrictions on civic space and targeted human rights defenders and protesters. Several civil society organisations and media groups have been added to a list of organisations accused of performing the functions of a foreign agent. The implications have been the closure of civil society and media groups, loss of income of many others, and the judicial persecution of leaders of these groups. Early in 2021, OVD-Info reported that more than 17600 were detained in response to large-scale protests calling for an end to the judicial persecution of opposition leader Alexey Navalny. Due to the spiraling decline in fundamental rights and freedoms in the country, in February 2021, Russia was added to a watchlist of countries that have seen a rapid deterioration of fundamental democratic freedoms.
Civic space in Russia is rated 'repressed' by the CIVICUS Monitor.