Concerns Over Russian Attacks on Freedom of Expression & Press
The New York City Bar Association (City Bar) expresses its grave concerns regarding the Russian Federation’s continued attacks on freedom of expression, opinion, and press in Russia and Ukraine. These attacks violate foundational principles of international law and are a clear breach of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights (UDHR) and the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR). We condemn these attacks in the strongest possible terms, urge the United Nations Human Rights Council to find the Russian Federation in violation of its obligations to respect freedom of expression, opinion, and the press and, to the extent that the actions described below against civilian journalists may constitute war crimes, urge that they be included in the investigation into the Russian Federation’s conduct already announced by the Prosecutor of the International Criminal Court (ICC).
FACTS RELATING TO ATTACKS ON EXPRESSIVE RIGHTS
Since February 24, 2022, the Russian Federation has relentlessly attacked expressive freedom in Russia and Ukraine through use of military force and repressive – indeed, illegal – laws meant to prevent Russian citizens from learning the truth about the war in Ukraine. Consistent with its attacks on civilian populations detailed in the City Bar’s March 10 Statement, the Russian Federation’s attacks have repeatedly killed and/or injured journalists in the warzone in contravention of international law, including:
- On February 28, Russian soldiers ambushed Sky News journalists, resulting in chief correspondent Stuart Ramsay being shot in his leg.
- On March 1, Russian Federation rocket attacks on the Kyiv TV Tower killed Yevhenii Sakun, a cameraman for the Ukrainian television channel LIVE.
- On March 6, Russian soldiers attacked Guillaume Briquet, a Swiss journalist, resulting in his hospitalization.
- On March 13, Russian soldiers shot and killed Brent Renaud, a documentary filmmaker, outside Kyiv; Juan Arredondo, a photographer with Mr. Renaud, was also injured in the attack.
- On March 15, two reporters on assignment for Fox News, Pierre Zakrzewski and Oleksandra Kuvshynova, were killed by incoming fire, with reports citing the Russian Federation as the responsible party.
In addition to these physical attacks, the Russian Federation has also resorted to the systemic manipulation and suppression of information at home. It has done so through the enforcement of arbitrary regulations and the adoption of new laws aimed at preventing the Russian public from learning about the war in Ukraine except through state-sanctioned channels peddling approved government propaganda:
- On March 2, Roskomnadzor, the Russian telecommunications agency, forced Rain TV, Russia’s only independent broadcaster, off the air for allegedly “inciting extremism, abusing Russian citizens.” Similarly, radio station Echo of Moscow was forced off the air after being accused of “calling for extremist activities, violence and deliberately false information about the actions of Russian forces as part of a special operation.”
- On March 4, the State Duma passed and President Putin signed, an amendment to the criminal code prohibiting “[p]ublic dissemination of deliberately false information about the use of the Armed Forces of the Russian Federation” on pain of imprisonment for up to 15 years.
This climate has caused the mass exodus of international news organizations from Russia, further depriving the Russian public of independent reporting on the war in Ukraine. The law and the Russian Federation’s related crackdown has also interrupted access to Facebook, Instagram, TikTok, and Twitter, depriving the Russian public access to user-generated content.
This brutal crackdown is, unfortunately, consistent to form. The Russian Federation has a history of intensifying such attacks during unprovoked military actions in violation of international law. During the Russian Federation’s occupation of Ukrainian Crimea, for example, it silenced dissent under the guise of “combating extremism.” Similarly, it branded critical press organizations as foreign agents under an anti-democratic law passed in 2012. And, it has aggressively targeted critics in the media for harassment, intimidation, and trumped-up criminal charges; journalists have also died under mysterious circumstances with speculation that their murders were ordered by the Russian Federation.
EXPRESSIVE FREEDOMS MUST BE PROTECTED
Freedom of expression is a customary international norm of human rights law, recognized across constitutions, domestic law, and regional human rights instruments. Foremost, it is enshrined in Article 19 of the UDHR: “Everyone has the right to freedom of opinion and expression; this right includes freedom to hold opinions without interference and to seek, receive and impart information and ideas through any media and regardless of frontiers.” It is also recognized in Article 19 of the ICCPR, forming three core tenets: the right to hold opinions without interference (freedom of opinion); the right to seek and receive information (access to information); and the right to impart information (freedom of expression).
Although the Russian Federation must abide by these principles, it is openly flouting them as evidenced by its attacks on journalists and adoption of an oppressive censorial regime. This disregard for international law is especially worrisome as expressive freedoms are central to self-determination around the world. Indeed, the free exchange of ideas protected by the UDHR and ICCPR is premised on individuals having sufficient information on which to make personal, social, and political choices. The Russian Federation’s attacks on journalists and information itself make this impossible for individuals in Russia and undermine it for those outside Russia.
In light of these abuses, the City Bar emphasizes its view, and the clear implications of the UDHR and ICCPR, that journalists play a fundamental role in ensuring the expressive freedom of others and themselves have the right to engage in the expressive freedoms of gathering and reporting the news. As one scholar explained, principles of international human rights treaties imply “that the news media play a systemic role within democracy that justifies the broad grant of freedom of media expression.” The City Bar thus emphatically condemns the Russian Federation’s attempts to undermine journalism, both through physical attacks on journalists in Ukraine and the establishment of a censorial regime in Russia, which together undermine rule of law.
Relatedly, the City Bar emphasizes that the UDHR and ICCPR also protect the right to seek and to receive information about the world. These rights have little value if journalists are unlawfully prevented from gathering and reporting the news to the public. Whether through physical attacks on journalists in Ukraine or the censorial regime now established by the Russian Federation, these attacks on expressive freedom deprive individuals of their rights to receive information sufficient to make sense of the world around them and, therefore, undermine their rights to self-determination, self-government, and self-expression.
For all these reasons, the City Bar condemns in the strongest possible terms attacks that are not just attacks on journalists in the war zone in Ukraine but also attacks on the right to know in the Russian Federation. The City Bar demands that the Russian Federation end these unlawful attacks on free expression immediately and comply with its obligations under international law. The City Bar urges all relevant authorities, including the Human Rights Council and, to the extent that the Russian Federation’s actions may constitute war crimes, the ICC Prosecutor, to review these attacks and to take all necessary action to help bring their perpetrators to justice.
Ramya Jawahar Kudekallu
Chair, International Human Rights Committee
Matthew L. Schafer
Chair, Communications and Media Law Committee
Stephen L. Kass
Chair, Task Force on the Rule of Law