Russian NGO Accused of “Narco-Propaganda” Over COVID-19 Advocacy For People Who Use Drugs
The Andrey Rylkov Foundation has closed its website amidst government accusations of “narco-propaganda”. The following statement outlines ongoing threats faced by the foundation and calls for support to continue to make essential live-saving health and human rights services available to people who use drugs.
The Andrey Rylkov Foundation has decided to limit access to its website with materials on Russian and international drug policy, health and human rights resources for people who use drugs. We have decided to temporarily shut down our website in light of a new government attack on the organization.
On Thursday, April 16th the major Russian government-owned news channel Rossiya-24 ran a prime-time news piece where they accused the Andrey Rylkov Foundation of distributing ‘narco-propaganda’, a couple of days after the Federal News Agency (RIAFAN) had run an “investigation” with similar accusations. The investigation was prompted by an earlier news piece, “Thousands on methadone withdrawals”, published by opposition outlet Mediazona, where ARF has shared the challenges we face during the COVID-19 crisis providing assistance to people who use drugs. The Mediazona news piece described people who use drugs as one of the most vulnerable populations, especially in Russia, where they don’t have access to effective drug treatments based on globally-recognised science and medicine and instead are forced into painful withdrawals.
The next day, Vasiliy Piskarev, the chair of the State Duma Security Committee, published a statement on the Duma website accusing us of attempting to decriminalize drug use and promoting drugs propaganda, and informs that he had passed this information onto the authorities in order to initiate a new series of check-ups.
In light of this smear campaign and threats, we’ve decided to shut down our website as it makes us very vulnerable to attacks from the government. We have no doubt from our previous experience that the Russian authorities can call any information on drugs as ‘narco-propaganda’ or may use other un-democratic laws in order to put the squeeze on us and apply sanctions:
For example, in 2010 ARF was subjected to a series of inspections by various law enforcement agencies, from the financial police to the prosecutor’s office, for publishing on its website information on approaches to drug dependency treatment, including opioid substitution therapy (an internationally-recognised treatment that is nevertheless illegal in Russia).
In 2011 our Foundation’s website was blocked by the Federal Narcotics Control Service for publishing the recommendations of the UN Committee on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights to Russia, where the Committee found the lack of evidence-based opioid substitution therapy, as recommended by the World Health Organization to people who suffer from opioid dependency, is a violation of Russia’s international obligations under article 12 (the Right to Health) of the Covenant.
In 2016 the ARF was registered by the Russian Ministry of Justice as a “Foreign Agent”. One of the three pieces of evidence that ARF is involved in ‘political activity’ was that we re-posted an open letter on our website from the Eurasian Network of People Who Use Drugs (ENPUD), calling to legalize opioid substitution therapy in Russia.
In 2017 our Foundation was fined for a text on the over-incarceration of women suffering from drug dependency in Russia, which we had already published on the website all the way back in 2012. The story described how about 40% of women imprisoned in Russia were serving time for non-violent, drug-related offences. A report from the Open Society Foundations (an NGO labelled “undesirable” in 2015 under the new “Law on Undesirable Organizations”) on the same topic was quoted, along with a link. Even though the name of the OSF was not mentioned in the story, which had been published long before the law came into force, ARF was ex post facto fined for “carrying out activities of an undesirable organization”.
In 2018 ARF was fined the huge sum of $12,000 USD for publishing a story in our newsletter on how to reduce the danger from using mephedrone (the number one illegal stimulant for many youth in Russian, with a lot of associated health risks), as it was deemed ‘narco-propaganda’ promoting drug use by the police, even though our newspaper was only distributed among those who were already drug users. This fine could have destroyed us as an organization, but fortunately we were able to raise the money through crowdfunding and we are still extremely grateful for everyone who helped out with their donations!
In that same year, Roskomnadzor, the Russian state office governing media and mass communications, demanded that four different articles (including a personal blog, a report from a safe drug consumption room in Amsterdam, etc.) should be taken down from the ARF website as they were also deemed ‘narco-propaganda’.
In March 2020 ARF was served with a new call from the prosecutor for publishing a guide on how to behave during drug-related stop-and-searches by the police developed by Open Russia. The publication of the guide was prompted by a survey ARF ran in 2019 on the average amount of bribes to police if a person is caught with drugs. This survey once again demonstrated systemic violations of human rights by the police – illegal police searches, extortion of bribes, arbitrary detention, planting evidence, rape, torture and inhumane treatment – that are still an everyday reality for people who use drugs in Russia. The alleged offence was once again related to the “Law on Undesirable Organizations”. As of now, the materials are yet to be heard by the court.
All these unfortunate episodes have taught us that practically any information – be it on drug harm reduction or drug policy or even human rights protection tools for individuals – can be considered a violation of the multiple laws that repress the freedom of expression or association.
We regret having to take this measure. We believe it is critical to provide access to truthful information, especially for people who consider trying, already use or have problems with illegal drugs. Equally critical is being able to openly discuss Russia’s drug policy, which continues to destroy lives with deadly overdoses and infections, and the torture, blackmail and mass imprisonment of one of the most vulnerable groups in society. In the course of eleven years of work, the site became not only a valuable resource for protecting health and human rights, but also a huge library documenting the abuses suffered by people who use drugs and our resistance.
We’d now like to take a little time to brainstorm what to do with our website – its a great body of knowledge that we’d like to preserve and have available. Maybe we could turn it into an archive, a library, a human rights database, a virtual museum? We would welcome your ideas and suggestions too! please write to us at firstname.lastname@example.org! But we want to protect our organization from being shut down as we want to be able to keep providing essential live-saving health and human rights services to people who use drugs.
If you would like to help us prepare for the new round of check-ups promised by the deputy, and possible fines, your donations will be greatly appreciated: https://www.globalgiving.org/donate/11084/the-andrey-rylkov-foundation/
*Andrey Rylkov Foundation for Health and Social Justice is a Moscow-based NGO that practice and promotes humane, respectful and supporting drug policy towards people who use drugs. Since its foundation in 2009, ARF provides direct health and legal service to people who use drugs in Moscow and advocates for improving the national and international drug-related legislation.