In a very exceptional move, yesterday - the very day the Russian Federation announced it would take steps to cease participation in the Council of Europe (see our post here) - the European Court of Human Rights announced it had earlier in the week issued the following to the Russian Federation as an urgent interim measure:
"to abstain until further notice from actions and decisions aimed at full blocking and termination of the activities of Novaya Gazeta, and from other actions that in the current circumstances could deprive Novaya Gazeta of the enjoyment of its rights guaranteed by Article 10 of the Convention (freedom of expression)."
The measure was indicated in the context of the already pending case of ANO RID Novaya Gazeta and Others v. Russia (application no. 11884/22). The case includes four applicants: newspaper Novaya Gazeta, widely regarded as Russia's last truly independent large newspaper and television company OOO Telekanal Dozhd, also seen as one of the other remaining independent news outlets, and two individuals Dmitriy Andreyevich Muratov and Natalya Vladimirovna Sindeyeva. Muratov is the editor of Novaya Gazeta and received last year's Nobel Peace Prize. Sindeyeva is the owner of Telekanal Dozhd.
In terms of speed, one may note that the request for an interim measure was made by Muratov on 3 March and on 8 March, so five days later, the Chamber of the Court to which the case had been allocated met and decided to indicate this interim measure. Thus, one may note that this took a bit longer than usual with interim measures, which are in individual cases of impending expulsion or extradition often issued with. 48 hours. This may have to do with the novelty of the context. As far as I am aware, this is the first time they are applied to press freedom and a media outlet. As is known, the Court can indicate interim measures under Rule 39 of the Rules of Court. These are binding upon states.
It should be noted that Muratov asked the Court for interim measures with a wider range than it has in the end indicated: he requested that the measures would counter all interferences with lawful activities of Russian mass media and specifically with the coverage of the war in Ukraine. It followed a week in which dozens of media outlets had been closed or their websites had been blocked on the orders Russian Federal Service for Supervision of Communications, Information Technology and Mass Media (Roskomnadzor). Roskomnadzor had specifically ordered Novaya Gazeta to delete specific articles published between 24 February and 1 March 2022 on the war in Ukraine from its website. The very day the request for interim measures by Muratov was lodged, 3 March, the other applicant in the case, Telekanal Dozhd, decided to temporarily halt its operations as its website had been blocked and its reporting had become impossible. On the same day also, Ekho Moskvy - the famous independent radio station - had been dissolved by its board because of its reporting of the conflict in Ukraine.
Events have been evolving very quickly. Just one day after the request was lodged, the Russian Federation introduced changes in its Criminal Code, with the effect of criminalising "the spread of knowingly untrue information about the actions of the Russian armed forces". The new prohibition went into immediate effect and included severe custodial and financial penalties. To avoid full closure, Novaya Gazeta halted its reporting on the war in Ukraine and deleted earlier published articles.
The wider context is one of crackdowns on media in Russia. With a combination of criminal prosecutions, closures, censorship and self-censorship, Russia's media landscape has been deteriorating for a number of years now. According to the NGO Reporters Without Borders in its annual world press freedom index, the Russian Federation was one of the least free countries in this respect, ranking 150 out of 180 states assessed in 2021. The last two weeks of war seem to have been the final blow, for now, at least to much of Russia's independent media.
Whatever the prospects Russia abiding by these interim measures, the action taken by the Court still signals that especially under the heaviest pressure, it should not be silent but continue as far as possible its work as guardian of the Convention.
The photo depicts the front page of Novaya Gazeta a day after the war started as a sign of solidarity with Ukraine. That day the newspaper was published in the Ukrainian language.