Russian censors block website of legal aid non-profit OVD-Info

OVD-Info representative Denis Shedov speaks at a n online round-table on "foreign agents", November 22, 2021. Screenshot from OVD-Info / YouTube, CC BY 3.0.

OVD-Info representative Denis Shedov speaks at an online round table on “foreign agents”, November 22, 2021. Screenshot from OVD-Info / YouTube, CC BY 3.0.

OVD-Info, a prominent Russian legal aid and human rights organisation, announced on December 25 that its website had been blocked by Roskomnadzor, Russia's internet and media regulator.

Though the state registry revealed that the website was blocked due to a December 20 verdict from a Moscow-based district court, no information about the reasons for the block was provided. A day later, Roskomnadzor also contacted several social media platforms with a request to block OVD-Info's accounts. Russia's top search engine Yandex also removed OVD-Info's website from its search results following the blocking, according to independent news website Mediazona.

Roskomnadzor representatives told state-run agency Interfax that blocking OVD-Info's pages was necessary because they allegedly contained “banned” information classified as “propaganda of extremism and terrorism”, though the regulator did not specify which content violated Russian laws.

In a statement, OVD-Info's co-founder Grigory Okhotin stressed that the court verdict did not mean that the organisation itself was recognised as “extremist” as it was not a defendant in the court case (and wasn't even invited to the court hearing).

OVD-Info is an independent media project aimed at defending legal and human rights and focusing on political persecutions in Russia. Its mission is to “aid those persecuted for exercising their right to freedom of assembly and other basic political rights”. The organisation's staff provide assistance to those detained during protest actions and collect detailed information on administrative and criminal cases stemming from political and protest-related activity.

In September 2021, Russia's Justice Ministry labelled OVD-Info a “foreign agent”, justifying its decision by noting that OVD-Info was partially financed through the Memorial Human Rights Centre (which also received a foreign agent designation and is facing closure in Russia). Prosecutors who appealed to the Justice Ministry at the time also claimed that OVD-Info had published “instructions on avoiding sanctions for extremism-related legal violations”.

OVD-Info's Okhotin said the state's actions did not come as a surprise:

Мы оцениваем это как продолжение атаки на гражданское общество со стороны государства. Нет ничего удивительного в том, что сейчас под прицел взяли именно ОВД-Инфо, так как на сегодняшний день наш проект, вероятно, — самый крупный правозащитный проект в России. Мы не можем сказать, что эта атака стала для нас неожиданной, так как мы понимали, что после атаки на ПЦ «Мемориал» и предъявления к нему аналогичных претензий, мы станем следующими. […]

Кроме того, ОВД-Инфо — основной драйвер кампании за отмену законодательства об «иноагентах»: после публикации соответствующей петиции нас включили в список «иноагентов», после подачи в Госдуму законопроекта — заблокировали сайт. Так власти осуществляют консультации с профессиональным сообществом.

We see this as a continuation of the state's attack on civil society. It is no surprise that the attack is now focused on OVD-Info, since today our project is probably the largest human rights defense project in Russia. We can't say this attack was unexpected, as we understood that after the attack on the Memorial Human Rights Centre and similar accusations, we would be next. […]

Besides, OVD-Info is the main driver of the campaign for abolishing the “foreign agent” legislation: after we published the related petition, we were added to the “foreign agent” list; after we submitted the bill [abolishing the law] to the State Duma (parliament – GV), our website was blocked. This is the authorities’ way of consulting with the professional community.

At a press briefing, when asked by an Echo of Moscow radio station reporter about cases against Memorial and OVD-Info, President Putin's press-secretary Dmitry Peskov said he did not see these “as a trend”:

Это отдельные случаи, какие-то менее резонансные с общественной точки зрения, какие-то более резонансные, но мы не считаем, что это какая-то массовая тенденция. Мы не видим тут какой-то тенденции.

These are one-off cases, some are more resonant from a public point of view, some are less prominent, but we don't think this is some kind of mass trend. We do not see any trend here.

Okhotin and OVD-Info have vowed to continue their work in Russia and use all available legal means to prove that “all our information is credible and does not violate any laws”.

Даже если все наши соцсети будут заблокированы, мы все равно будем оказывать правовую помощь людям, которых преследуют по политическим мотивам, и найдем способ доносить до вас нужную и важную информацию.

Even of all of our social network pages are blocked, we will still continue to provide legal aid to people persecuted for political reasons and we will find a way to share necessary and important information with you.

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