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Civil society to YouTube: stop helping Russia suppress free speech

YouTube must protect freedom of expression in Russia. Through an open letter, Access Now and over 20 Russian and international civil society organizations are urging YouTube and its parent company Google to not help the Kremlin censor Russian independent media and human rights organizations. 

Since February 2024, YouTube has blocked several anti-war videos about military service evasion, including videos from the human rights channels “Dozor in Volgograd” (“Watch in Volgograd”) and “Shkola Prizivnika” (“Conscript school”). 

At the request of Russia’s censorship body, Roskomnadzor, YouTube threatened to block several human rights channels and videos including “Kak teper?” (“What Now?”) of the human rights project “OVD-Info” for foreign agent law violations, human rights organization “Roskomsvoboda,” and the channel of journalists Ekaterina Kotrikadze and Tikhon Dzyadko.

YouTube must not become a political tool of the Russian state’s attempt to suppress free speech and access to information. YouTube is one of the most influential platforms for independent information in Eastern Europe and Central Asia, and has a moral duty to resist unjust laws that make it complicit in human rights violations. Natalia Krapiva, Senior Tech Legal Counsel, Access Now

On May 21, 2024, after significant publicity sparked by independent media in Russia, YouTube unblocked at least three of the censored videos. However, these videos are still hidden from those who try to search for them in Russia.

This is not the first time the Russian Government has pressured Big Tech to remove Russian civil society content. In September 2021, Russian authorities pressed Apple and Google to remove then opposition leader Alexey Navalny’s Smart Voting project app from their stores and platforms. In 2022, Google, along with other platforms, received requests from Russia’s Roskomnadzor to block OVD-Info’s social media pages — Google, Meta, X (formerly Twitter), and Telegram did not comply with this request.

With ongoing crackdowns on Russian civil society, activists and journalists are forced to flee, not only to other countries, but to alternative online spaces to continue their work. The existence of Russian NGOs and media outlets heavily depend on YouTube and other social media platforms, and YouTube remains one of the limited possibilities to reach out to their audiences. Big Tech must not succumb to Russian censorship. Anastasiya Zhyrmont, Policy Manager (Eastern Europe & Central Asia), Access Now

In the open letter, the civil society asks YouTube and Google to protect the freedom of speech and the dissemination of information and not become a tool of political censorship for the Russian authorities.