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Russia's Free Speech and Public Health Crackdown

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Vladimir Putin wrote a recent column praising the potential for "internet-based democracy". But the Russian government adopts rules allowing for websites to be shut down on a whim, and has used those rules to close down HIV prevention sites.



He talked about free medical care being one of the priorities of Russian citizens. But that care denied to millions of Russian people.



While Prime Minister Putin spoke glowingly of digital democracy, his anti-drugs agency is censoring websites for writing about WHO essential medicine.



"[It's over] methadone, plain and simple" said Anya Sarang, President of the Andrey Rylkov Foundation, which had its website shut down over the weekend.



The government's anti-drugs agency, FSKN Moscow Department demanded that the Andrey Rylkov Foundation's service provider block their website, utilizing new rules adopted last year. The notification states it was due to "placement of materials which propagandize (advertise) the use of drugs, information about distribution, purchasing of drugs and inciting the use of drugs"



What the Foundation was doing was spreading the word about basic HIV prevention measures and commenting on the Russian government's policies.



Amidst pro-democracy protests, the Russian authorities have taken what is an ongoing assault on HIV prevention to the next level by moving to silence public health advocates whose only infraction has been to spread life-saving information online and to criticize the government for its own failures.



Russia is home to one of the biggest populations of injecting drug users, and one of the fastest growing HIV epidemics in the world. It is estimated that there are just under two million injecting drug users in Russia. In some regions, more than 80 percent of people living with HIV in the country contracted the virus through injecting with contaminated equipment.



According to the World Health Organization, methadone is an essential medicine, for treating heroin dependence and for preventing HIV transmission by reducing the practice of injecting. Multiple scientific studies back this up.



But the Russian government's 'zero tolerance' approach to illicit drugs is well known and has resulted in the outright denial of methadone (or 'opioid substitution therapy'). It is illegal in Russia.



The net result of these policies is a massive increase in the number of people living with HIV in the country over the last decade.


According to UNAIDS, "In Eastern Europe and Central Asia, there was a 250% increase in the number of people living with HIV from 2001 to 2010. The Russian Federation and Ukraine account for almost 90% of the Eastern Europe and Central Asia region's epidemic. Injecting drug use remains the leading cause of HIV infection in this region".



"People all over the world take this medication for granted" says Sarang, "but here in Russia it's central to our struggle against HIV and it's banned. Now, even our speaking about it seems to be banned."



This is not the first time Russia has attempted to censor civil society voices for public health. At the UN General Assembly talk on HIV last March the Russian delegation tried to stop a Ukrainian drug user from speaking about HIV prevention. Fortunately, others were not happy with such censorship and the effort failed.



"The right to information is essential to realizing the right to health," said Agnes Callamard, Executive Director of ARTICLE 19, in a statement. "A government agency such as Federal Drug Control Service should not have the ability to ban websites at the whim of a bureaucrat. This is particularly so when considering the impact of censoring discussions relating to drug addiction or HIV/AIDS."



For years, human rights advocates like the Andrey Rylkov Foundation have argued that Russia's colossal failure to provide vital services is a breach of its obligation under international law to respect, protect and fulfill the right to health. The government's latest crackdown against public health activists has turned the matter into an issue of freedom of expression.



Mr. Putin says that democracy needs "efficient channels for dialogue... communication and feedback," while the government's actions silence people fighting to raise issues the government is refusing to face. This silences the spread of information. It silences the democratic process.