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Sochi’s Potemkin Protest Zones

The Olympics can be a force for good, but not with the crushing free-speech restrictions in Russia

Published in: Wall Street Journal

Olympic organizers are playing games with human rights ahead of the February 2014 Winter Games in Sochi. In the latest round, the International Olympic Committee announced last week that the Russian authorities will set up designated “protest zones” for people who want to demonstrate publicly during the event. President Thomas Bach said the IOC welcomed the Russian decision to create protest zones “so that everybody can express his or her opinion.”

If Mr. Bach and the IOC really care so much about free expression, they should instead be pressing the Russian government to uphold free speech in a number of crucial areas. Rather than embracing the designated protest zones, the IOC should be deeply concerned.

To understand why, look no further than the last Olympic Games undermined by serious human-rights and free-speech controversy: the 2008 Summer Games in Beijing. There, at least half a dozen people took the IOC at their word that designated protest zones provided a safe space to publicly voice concerns. ButChinese demonstrators instead found themselves detained. Though most were later released, two were jailed.

The Sochi protest zones appear to be a concession on the part of the Russian authorities, in light of the public outcry earlier this year after PresidentVladimir Putinbanned any kind of demonstration or protest in most parts of Sochi, including one-person pickets. Free expression is not protected by restricting it to a handful of locations.

The Sochi administration has so far authorized one location for protests: a park in a sleepy mountain enclave some 15 kilometers away from the Olympic media center and major sports venues. The Russian press reports that the federal security service, the FSB, will be charged with doling out permissions for demonstrations. That's hardly an open invitation to those striving to have their voices heard.

Meanwhile, the scope and depth of Russian surveillance of communications during the Sochi Games appear to rival that of the Chinese government during the Beijing Games. In the run-up to the Games, the government has reportedly undertaken a major upgrade of its "System of Operative-Investigative Measures" capabilities, which allow the government direct surveillance of mobile and internet networks.

A Russian government decree in November orders the authorities to maintain a database of phone and internet users who are in Sochi during the period of the Olympic Games—including athletes, coaches, spectators and journalists. The database would include information about the frequency of communications, interlocutors and payment. The Sochi 2014 Organizing Committee has the task of helping to maintain the database.

With the world's outrage at U.S. spying around the globe, shouldn't the IOC be concerned about the implications of privacy rights and free expression for journalists, athletes, and others who will be caught in the Russian surveillance web? Guarantees of full media freedom are an essential condition of hosting of any Games, but Mr. Putin has instilled exactly the kind of atmosphere that can lead journalists to hesitate to report on controversial issues, or to self-censor to avoid risk to themselves or their contacts. Olympic fans and viewers deserve tosee the full pictureof life in the country in which the Games take place.

Russia has genuine security concerns related to the Games, which are taking place a few hundred kilometers from the North Caucasus republics, home to violent insurgencies. One militant group has even threatened to target the Games. But the scope and breadth of the surveillance measures and restrictions on protest are wildly disproportionate and infringe on basic freedoms.

Finally, as Mr. Bach champions the Russian government's initiative on public demonstrations, he and the IOC should also realize how inappropriate it is to use the words “everybody can express his or her opinion” and “Russia” in the same breath. To be sure, there is more freedom of expression in Russia today than during the Soviet era, but that is a very low bar.

The discriminatory and widely criticized law against lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgendered (LGBT) “propaganda” that Russia passed in June, and the ongoing clampdown on civil society and independent media, make abundantly clear that not everyone in Russia can enjoy the basic right to express who they are and what opinions they hold. The anti-LGBT law explicitly forbids any actions or publications that place LGBT people in a positive light. Three activists have already received fines for violating the law, and the Molodoi Dalnevostochnik newspaper in Khabarovsk is currently being prosecuted under the law for publishing statements that being gay is normal.

The Russian leadership's loathing of dissenting voices has also been evident with the crackdown on activists, environmentalists and journalists in Sochi; the excessive charges faced by dozens of so-called“Bolotnaya” demonstratorsfor protesting in Moscow last year; and the recent, politically motivated trial of opposition leader Alexei Navalny.

Instead of speaking out about these serious concerns, the IOC has concentrated on warning athletes and national Olympic committees about Rule 50 of the Olympic Charter, which forbids athletes from engaging in any kind of demonstration or political "propaganda." The IOC said it issued a confidential letter last week to national Olympic committees reminding them of the rule.

Thomas Bach's predecessor Jacques Rogge often claimed that the Olympics are “a force for good.” They no doubt can be—but not with the crushing free-speech restrictions Russia has in place today.

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