Russia faces increased scrutiny as enforcement of its anti-extremism laws skirts the line of censorship. Just last week, a librarian in Siberia was convicted in criminal proceedings for fulfilling a patron’s request for a banned book. No information was given on why the book was banned, and police did not reveal the title or author of book for fear of generating interest in “extremist literature.” So what, then, does extremism mean under Russian law?
In 2002, Russia passed Federal Law No. 114 FZ on Counteraction of Extremist Activities to protect “the rights and freedom of man and citizen, the principles of the constitutional system, the integrity and security of the Russian Federation.” It’s goal was to define extremism in an effort to prevent violence motivated by racial or religious strife and terrorist activity. The law was amended on three subsequent occasions, each amendment resulting in a broader definition.
The most recent version of the law includes mass dissemination of extremist material, the production and storage of such material for the purpose of mass dissemination, public discussion of extremism, and criticism of government officials as extremist activities. These amendments were criticized in the international community because the broad language makes it difficult to distinguish between extremist statements and critical statements made in regular political discourse. Critics felt that the potential for broad interpretation of the law would likely result in the suppression freedom of speech and the press.
So far, the anti-extremism law seems to target religious minorities and political dissenters. In March, a court in Moscow upheld the ban on Scientology books as extremist literature. Feminist punk band Pussy Riot was convicted of “hooliganism” and sentenced to two years in prison for performing a song in a Russian Orthodox cathedral that was critical of Russian President Vladimir Putin and the Orthodox Church’s influence on the government.
Censorship is a tricky thing, disguising itself in many ways. It appears cloaked in good intentions and with the best interests of society in mind. It wants to protect our children from harmful ideas and images and tries to protect nations and their citizens by restricting speech that incites hatred and violence. Laudable goals, but there is a line; the fight is over where it gets drawn, and who gets to draw it.
Few countries protect Free Speech as adamantly as the United States does, and censorship has a chilling effect worldwide. Please help support CBLDF’s important First Amendment work and reporting on issues such as this by making a donation or becoming a member of the CBLDF!
Soyini A. Hamit is a comic fan, a writer, and a 2015 J.D. candidate at Phoenix School of Law.