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A photo illustration interweaving the Russian flag with the Facebook and Twitter logos taken in Zenica, Bosnia and Herzegovina, May 22, 2015. Russia's media watchdog has warned that Google, Twitter and Facebook could be blocked if they do not comply with Russian Internet laws. © 2015 Reuters

A Russian YouTuber recently noted that internet users in Russia today, “have one foot in jail.”

Less succinctly but with greater gravitas, the UN Committee on Elimination of Racial Discrimination last week said that Russia needs to do something about its anti-extremism legislation, which in recent years has become a key instrument in the authorities’ crackdown on free expression, especially online.

The Committee has criticized Russia’s “anti-extremism” law in particular, recommending a more precise definition of “extremism” and suggesting that Russia bin its “Federal List of Extremist Materials,” an ambiguous and contradictory document which includes over 4,000 items.

It’s a welcome move. There currently seem to be no limits to how far Russian authorities are willing to stretch “anti-extremist” censorship, restrict access to information they deem sensitive, or use the law at will simply to punish critics. This law is the backbone of an array of legislation on extremism, which in recent years grew dramatically and continues to expand.

One example is the 2013 law that criminalized “insulting religious believers’ feelings.” Mocking the Orthodox Church – a move against Russia’s national ideology of “traditional values” – can therefore be considered act of extremism. Just a few weeks ago, a court in Sochi fined a man roughly US$850 for re-posting satirical images of Jesus on his social media page, even though he posted the images in 2014 and had since deleted them. Other examples include a researcher convicted for inciting extremism after sharing a statement of a far-right nationalist group on his social network page; a blogger, who got a two-and-a-half-year prison sentence for “justification of terrorism” after he wrote a critical post about Russia’s foreign policy in Syria. The list goes on.

To be sure, all kinds of expression can still be found online; indeed it’s the only place in Russia where this can happen. But the authorities have been steadily picking away at it, at times casting even the mildest forms of criticism of the government or debate on certain topics, including Ukraine, religion, LGBT issues, and others, as threats to state security, and public stability. Between 2015 and 2017, the number of people who went to prison for “extremist” speech almost doubled.

The UN’s recommendations could not be more timely. Russia’s overly broad extremism legislation should be amended immediately. Politically motivated prosecutions for, “public calls for separatism,” “offending feelings of religious believers” or “incitement to hatred,” including for online statements, should end. Restrictions on online content should apply only to content that is truly harmful and inherently criminal in nature, not merely to views and opinions, even if they may be offensive to some, including the government.

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