Russia has blocked the website of a rights watchdog that tracks political persecution, saying it encourages terrorism and extremism, as part of an unprecedented official crackdown on dissent.
The move comes a year in which the opposition has been dismantled and dozens of independent media and rights groups have been labeled “foreign agents” or banned outright.
OVD-Info, which tracks opposition protests and also provides legal support to victims of political persecution, said media regulator Roskomnadzor blocked its website earlier this week.
âAt the moment, we have not received a notification and do not know the reason for the block,â the group tweeted.
A Roskomnadzor log of blocked websites showed that a Moscow region court had issued a decision dated December 20 to “limit” access to the site.
The site was not accessible to AFP journalists in Russia on Saturday.
Later on Saturday, Russian news agencies quoted Roskomnadzor as confirming that he had blocked the OVD-Info website because the Moscow region court ruled that the group’s activities were aimed at promoting “terrorism and extremism “in Russia.
Roskomnadzor added that he had sent “requests” to social media networks to “delete the organization’s accounts”.
“We see this as a continuation of the state’s offensive against civil society,” OVD-Info co-founder Grigory Okhotin told Telegram, dismissing the allegations and swearing that OVD-Info would continue its work. , despite the blockage.
Pressure on social media companies to remove OVD-Info from their platforms comes after a Moscow court slapped Google on Friday with an unprecedented fine of nearly $ 100 million, while Meta (formerly Facebook) has was fined $ 27 million for failing to remove banned content. .
Roskomnadzor said US companies had “ignored multiple demands” to remove materials that incite religious hatred and promote the views of “extremist and terrorist organizations,” among other violations.
OVD-Info, which was founded ten years ago during the first mass protests against President Vladimir Putin’s regime in December 2011, was described as a âforeign agentâ in September.
Carrying negative connotations from the Stalinist era, entities or individuals identified as âforeign agentsâ must accompany all their texts, videos and social media posts with a warning.
The label has a dissuasive effect on advertisers and complicates the functioning of organizations and journalists.
OVD-Info, which campaigned against the legislation, denounced the decision as “an act of political pressure”.
The label “foreign agent” was used in particular against journalists, the list of individuals and press organs of the Ministry of Justice going from 17 at the beginning of the year to 103 on Saturday.
Critics point out that the decision of Putin’s main national opponent, Alexei Navalny, to return to Russia in January, triggered the historic crackdown.
The 45-year-old opposition leader was in Germany recovering from a near-fatal poisoning attack he blames Putin – a claim the Kremlin has repeatedly denied.
Navalny was jailed shortly after his return on old fraud charges and has since seen his organizations banned as “extremists” and all of his main allies flee the country.
Asked about the crackdown on Thursday, Putin said it was aimed at curbing foreign influence.
“I remind you of what our adversaries have been saying for centuries: Russia cannot be defeated, it can only be destroyed from within,” he said at a press conference.
He added that it was internal dissent that caused the collapse of the Soviet Union 30 years ago this month.
Also this month, Russia’s Supreme Court plans to shut down the country’s most prominent rights organization, Memorial, which works with OVD-Info.
Prosecutors accuse the rights group of violating the law on “foreign agents” and of justifying terrorism by publishing lists of political prisoners including banned figures like Navalny.