European Court asked to consider Russia’s blocking of human rights website in occupied Crimea
An Ukrainian human rights organisation has asked the European Court of Human Rights (ECtHR) to rule on the Russian Federation’s action in blocking its website in an occupied area of Ukraine, alleging a politically-motivated violation of its freedom of expression.
The organisation, Zmina, uses its website to share information about the human rights situation in Ukraine. On 11 May 2022, staff from the NGO discovered that it was impossible to access its website in the Crimean peninsula.
On further investigation, they discovered the site, zmina.info, had been blocked by the Russian authorities two weeks earlier, on the basis that it contravened a law which allows the authorities to restrict access to a site if it is engaged in the illegal sharing of information, including ‘false publicly important information’. Zmina had received no warning or notification from the Russian authorities, and it was only by checking the website of the Russian telecoms regulator that they found out their website had been blocked.
Crimea, in southeastern Ukraine, has been under Russian occupation since March 2014. Zmina believes the decision to block its website was politically-motivated, the result of its active reporting on human rights violations in occupied Crimea and the consequences of Russian aggression in Ukraine.
“Ukrainian citizens in Crimea already had limited access to information. By blocking access to our portal, which provides information on human rights violations and on how to protect human rights, the Russian authorities further exacerbated the vulnerability of these Ukrainian citizens and deepened their isolation, causing great harm.”
Tetiana Pechonchyk, Head of Zmina’s Board
Ukrainian lawyer Sergiy Zayets, who helped prepare the complaint to the ECtHR, said: “Russia’s armed aggression against Ukraine is a violation of its international obligations. In addition, it is violating its obligations in relation to freedom of expression by obstructing the dissemination of information about human rights violations, and ways to protect rights.”
Zmina is represented before the ECtHR by the European Human Rights Advocacy Centre (EHRAC) and its Kyiv-based partners Regional Press Development Institute.
“The blocking of independent media reporting on Russian aggression in Ukraine is a key aspect of Russia’s attempts to censor and control the narrative around its invasion. Zmina’s case is of particular significance as it concerns the Russian authorities’ application of Russian law to the occupied territory of Crimea, and their attempts to prevent the legitimate dissemination of information by a Ukrainian NGO to individuals in Ukrainian sovereign territory.”
Camilla Alonzo, lawyer, EHRAC
In its application to the ECtHR, Zmina argues that Russia’s actions constitute politically-motivated interference with its right to freedom of expression under Articles 10 and 18 of the European Convention on Human Rights (the “Convention”). Zmina also argues that it had no effective remedies as regards its complaints under Articles 10 and 18 of the Convention, in violation of its rights under Article 13.
In blocking Zmina’s website, the Russian authorities applied Article 15.3 of Russian Federal Law of 27 July 2006 No. 149-FZ, “On Information, Information Technologies and Information Protection”.
Since its full-scale invasion of Ukraine on 24 February 2022, Russia has introduced a number of new repressive laws to control reporting – including penalising reporting which ‘publicly discredits’ Russia’s armed forces – and has blocked thousands of websites.