Russian Security Legislation Could Impact Free Speech

Human rights advocates and Russian opposition figures are criticizing two legislative proposals before the Russian legislature that impose restrictions on the rights to free speech and political expression reminiscent of Soviet-era repression.

A recent bill, passed by the Duma on June 11, will expand the powers of the Federal Security Service (FSB) to anticipate extremist activities and take pre-emptive measures against individuals and groups the agency suspects of such activities. The FSB was created in 1995 as Russia’s successor intelligence agency to the KGB. The language of the bill — which includes the authority to “eliminate causes and conditions that are conducive to the realization of threats to security” — is too broad and could be used to stifle free speech and the press, warns the Coalition for Democracy in Russia, an umbrella organization of political and human rights groups.

The second legislative change involves amendments to existing state secret laws and the penalties for violating them.

According to the Christian Science Monitor’s recent report on the issue, the legislative measures have human rights groups, dissidents and other civil society members scared, in large part because Russia’s human rights record has shown little improvement over the last decade. Rights activists, journalists and dissidents have been the victims of a series of high-profile assassinations that many believe are tied to the authorities. Political dissent is poorly tolerated, with arrests and detentions a regular feature of opposition protests.

Russian President Dmitry Medvedev vowed to improve Russia’s democratic credentials and human rights environment when he assumed office in May 2008. But he has made limited efforts and has had little success in challenging the authoritative bent of his mentor, former president and current prime minister, Vladimir Putin.

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