Out in the Cold: Sochi Winter Olympics Campaign

In the weeks leading up to the Sochi Winter Olympic Games (7 – 23 February), PEN will be protesting the draconian restrictions placed on free expression in Russia since President Vladimir Putin returned to office in May 2012

In the last 18 months, Russian lawmakers have signed a number of laws curtailing free speech and dissent. Three laws specifically place a chokehold on the right to express oneself freely, and pose a particular threat to our fellow writers, journalists and bloggers:

1. In June 2013, the now-infamous gay ‘propaganda’ law was passed. This law prohibits the ‘propaganda of non-traditional sexual relationships among minors,’ meaning that any activity that can be construed as promoting the non-heterosexual lifestyle, including the holding of LGBT rallies, or the ‘promotion of denial of traditional family values among minors,’ is now banned. Russian citizens violating this law face being fined; foreigners face deportation. Since the introduction of this law, LGBT groups have reported an increase in attacks on gay people and Russia’s media watchdog has already targeted one newspaper, Molodoi Dalnevostochnik, for ‘promoting’ homosexuality in its coverage of the firing of a gay school teacher.

2. The ‘blasphemy’ law was also passed in June 2013. This law criminalises ‘religious insult’ and provides punishments of up to three years’ imprisonment or a maximum fine of 500,000 RUB. The law is widely seen as a heavy-handed attempt to deter stunts similar to the one carried out by the feminist punk group Pussy Riot, who performed their ‘punk prayer’ inside the Christ the Saviour Cathedral in February 2012.

3. Defamation was re-criminalised in July 2012. Having previously been de-criminalised in 2011 under former President Dmitry Medvedev, it was made a crime once again when Putin returned to the presidency. This law provides cripplingly harsh fines of up to US$153,000 for violations and threatens to push small media outlets into self-censorship for fear of risking financial ruin.

In December 2013, in celebration of the 20th anniversary of the Russian constitution, the State Duma granted an amnesty to PEN cases and jailed members of Pussy Riot Nadezhda Tolokonnikova and Maria Alyokhina. Although welcome, this only reduced their harsh two-year prison sentences by a number of weeks, and it should not distract us from the fact that the threat to the right to express oneself freely has greatly increased since their conviction in August 2012.

During the Games, PEN will be calling for the repeal of this trio of laws that restrict freedom of expression in Russia: the gay ‘propaganda’ law, the blasphemy law, and criminal defamation. Please join us.

TAKE ACTION

1. Spread the word: join PEN in protesting Russia’s restrictions on freedom of expression by writing an article or blog for your local or national media.

2. Lobby the authorities: send a letter of appeal to the Russian authorities calling for the repeal of the trio of laws restricting free expression in Russia.  A sample letter is provided below.

3. Support the campaign on social media: join the call for greater freedom of expression in Russia by signing up to PEN’s Thunderclap* and sharing details of the campaign on Facebook and Twitter. (NB Please use the hashtags #OutintheCold and #sochi2014 and copy in President Putin @PutinRF_Eng and PEN International @pen_int where possible.)

4. Use the campaign image creatively: artist Maxine Young has created this image especially for the campaign. You might like to use the image as your Facebook profile picture or Twitter avatar, or on posters, t-shirts, and placards. Please take photos or make videos of actions incorporating the image and send them to cat@englishpen.org. Download the image here.

PEN-Int-Russia-Main-A4-v22

For further background information on the campaign, please visit the PEN International website.

[ecampaign ‘to=press@rusemb.org.uk ‘ subject=”Freedom of expression in Russia”]

Your Excellency

I am writing to you as a supporter of English PEN – the founding centre of a global free expression and writers’ association – on the occasion of the Winter Olympic Games at Sochi.

I wish to protest the draconian restrictions placed on free expression in Russia since President Vladimir Putin returned to office in May 2012.

During the last 18 months, Russian lawmakers have signed a number of laws curtailing free speech and dissent. Three laws specifically place a choke hold on the right to express oneself freely, and pose a particular threat to our fellow writers, journalists and bloggers:

1. In June 2013, the gay ‘propaganda’ law was passed. This law was ostensibly passed to protect children from pornography and access to inappropriate sexual material, but in practice it (and its precursor) has been used to target journalists and entertainers. The breadth of the legislation means that any activity that can be construed as promoting the non-heterosexual lifestyle, including the holding of LGBT rallies is now banned. Russian citizens violating this law face being fined; foreigners face deportation. Since the introduction of this law, LGBT groups have reported an increase in attacks on gay people and Russia’s media watchdog has already targeted one newspaper, Molodoi Dalnevostochnik, for ‘promoting’ homosexuality in its coverage of the firing of a gay school teacher.

2. The ‘blasphemy’ law was also passed in June 2013. This law criminalises ‘religious insult’ and provides punishments of up to three years’ imprisonment or a maximum fine of US$ 16,000. The law is widely seen as a heavy-handed attempt to deter stunts similar to the one carried out by the feminist punk group Pussy Riot, who performed their ‘punk prayer’ inside the Christ the Saviour Cathedral in February 2012 (for which three members of the band received two-year prison sentences). Though they were arrested before the law was introduced, they were convicted in the spirit in which the legislation would later be written.

3. In July 2012, defamation was re-criminalised. This law provides cripplingly harsh fines of up to US$153,000 for violations and threatens to push small media outlets into self-censorship for fear of risking financial ruin. In practice, criminal defamation laws have often been exploited by public officials around the world to silence criticism and deter investigative reporting. The United Nations special rapporteur for free expression has called for all states to decriminalise defamation. While the current trend in Europe is to move away from the criminalisation of speech offences, Russia is going in the opposite direction.

I am greatly concerned that the three aforementioned laws will be used as a way of punishing activists and writers solely for the peaceful expression of their opinions, in violation of the International Covenant of Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR) to which Russia is a signatory, and therefore join PEN in calling for these laws to be repealed immediately.

I would welcome your comments on my appeal.

Yours sincerely

[/ecampaign]

* Thunderclap

On Thursday 6 February, at exactly 2pm GMT, a single message supporting our Russian Winter Olympics campaign will be sent from the Facebook and Twitter accounts of PEN members – and Out in the Cold campaign supporters around the world – sharing the same message at the same time, spreading an idea through Facebook and Twitter that cannot be ignored.

What is Thunderclap?

Thunderclap is an online tool that individuals can sign up to through their Twitter and Facebook accounts in order to join social media campaigns. By joining Thunderclap you’re allowing it to share a single message on your behalf at a specified time and date. This is only the case when you click the button on the campaign page to support us with one or more of your Twitter, Facebook, or Tumblr accounts. After the campaign is complete, Thunderclap won’t send any more messages from your account and your account will remain completely private throughout.

How to add your name to the Thunderclap

  1. Follow this link to add your name to the campaign. Do this as soon as you can – we need at least 100 people to sign up for the Thunderclap to go ahead!
  2. Select your social media accounts (to spread the message as far as possible we suggest you choose all your social media accounts)
  3. This will generate a message from your social media account to let others know that you have signed up to the campaign
  4. Another message will be generated on Thursday 6 FEBRUARY at 2pm GMT from all accounts that have signed up – culminating in a Thunderclap, and spreading news of PEN’s Sochi Olympics campaign across the internet.

About English PEN staff

This content is published by the English PEN staff.

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