Watchdog: Kremlin Internet Plans Could Endanger Free Speech

Russian proposals on protecting Internet users against threats from the West could be a Kremlin ploy to crack down on critical voices inside Russia, a representative of Europe’s main rights and democracy watchdog said.

Russian President Vladimir Putin has described the Internet as a “CIA special project,” and Russia media last week quoted officials as saying they were looking at technical ways to shield the Russian web, if the need arises, from threats to national security.

“I do recognize that there is a need to protect our societies, there is no doubt about it, the threats are tremendous. We have terrorism, child abuse, trafficking,” said Dunja Mijatovic, Representative on Freedom of the Media with the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE).

“But if you look at the trend, and in which direction Russia is going as a country in relation to freedom of expression and freedom of the media, then of course … the small red flag that I’m raising all the time is immediately raised in order to ask: ‘What is the reason for it?’”

“In most of the situations that we looked into, these issues that are in relation to Internet freedom, it is to suppress and to restrict critical voices,” Mijatovic told Reuters in an interview in the Polish capital.

The Kremlin dismisses accusations that it wants to isolate the Russian Internet, repeatedly saying its only concern is to ensure national security, especially as relations with the West have plunged to Cold War lows over the crisis in Ukraine.

The OSCE, headquartered in Vienna, has 57 member states which include Russia and the United States.

Hungarian tax

Mijatovic called on the government in European Union state Hungary to repeal a special tax which will affect the most-watched television station, RTL Klub, a unit of German media group Bertelsmann.

Under the new rule, tax on media companies rises to 40 percent per year on revenue above 20 billion forints ($83 million) — a threshold only RTL Klub has reached.

“That is a very, in a way, sophisticated way of silencing somebody,” Mijatovic said in the interview, on the sidelines of an OSCE conference. “It should be repealed.

“Even if it is only a tax issue it is still a media freedom issue because it affects the media.

“There is a clear attempt by the Hungarian government to curb free speech, to control absolutely everything, and the government has the final word when it comes to anything to do with the media,” said Mijatovic.

RTL alleges the government is trying to force it out of Hungary. The government denies undermining media freedoms. It has said the tax prevents profitable media multinationals from using accounting ruses to avoid tax.

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