Russia’s Free Speech and Public Health Crackdown

In the world of HIV/AIDS there is an old adage: silence = death.

The rallying cry of Act Up Paris since the early days of HIV activism has become short hand for the need to speak out, get informed and speak truth to power.

Nowhere is this more necessary than in Russia, which hosts a massive population of injecting drug users, and one of the fastest growing HIV epidemics in the world. It is also home to a government with one of the poorest track records on HIV prevention and human rights.

Now in a chilling assault on the right to freedom of expression, the government’s anti-drugs agency, FSKN Moscow Department, last weekend took steps to block the Russian-language website of a prominent Russian HIV/AIDS organisation, the Andrey Rylkov Foundation. (An English language version remains available). 

This action was allegedly taken because of “placement of materials which propagandize (advertise) the use of drugs, information about distribution, purchasing of drugs and inciting the use of drugs”.

President of the Foundation, Anya Sarang suggests the government was particularly concerned about its advocacy against the government’s ban on methadone – a critical intervention in the fight against HIV/AIDS.

“Plain and simple -- it’s methadone,” Sarang said.

The Andrey Rylkov Foundation promotes drug policies grounded in health and human rights. The organization has been a vocal critic of the Russian government’s ban on methadone, an essential medicine of the World Health Organization and one of the core interventions for the prevention of HIV.

Russia’s refusal to implement evidence-based health interventions has resulted in 37 percent adult HIV prevalence among people who inject drugs.

The Andrey Rylkov Foundation appealed to a UN human rights body -- the Committee on Economic Social and Cultural Rights – in 2010 to urge the government to provide vital services such as opioid substitution therapy.

In the 2010 report to the Committee, the organisation wrote that “the Government stifles the debates concerning substitution therapy and harm reduction, thus violating the right to impart and receive information on the health-related matters.”

The report sought to "Ensure that drug propaganda laws are not used to stifle the debates on drug treatment and harm reduction."

Agnes Callamard, Executive Director of ARTICLE 19, said in a press release opposing the shut down, “The right to information is essential to realising the right to health … 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.”

Sarang said the recent shut down of her organisation’s website has been part of an ongoing governmental “campaign” against the organisation. She said she was notified by both the Public Prosecutor’s office and the Department of Economic Security and Counteraction of Corruption of the Ministry of the Interior that she was the subject of an investigation due to her “involvement with ‘propaganda about methadone’”.

“This is not the first case of governmental pressure and it seems that the authorities started a campaign against us,” she said.

Diederik Lohman, senior health researcher at Human Rights Watch, said, “The government has nothing to gain by censoring this small organization for trying to help people stay safe. It is totally unacceptable and evidence of the Russian authorities’ ongoing resistance to internationally accepted methods of HIV prevention and international standards for freedom of expression.”

No one should underestimate the significance of this. The Russian government’s action represents a genuinely frightening breach of international law, which could be applied to other groups.

It also silences people fighting to raise issues the government is refusing to face.

Russia’s assault on public health advocates represents an effort to compel silence. People who care about health, human rights and the right to expression must speak up. 

Because the adage remains true: silence = death.

Damon Barrett is Senior Human Rights Analyst and Patrick Gallahue a Human Rights Analyst, at Harm Reduction International