By Karen Mesoznik, Collective Evolution
In countries around the world, summer is known as the time to celebrate Pride and shine the spotlight on LGBTQ equality and rights. Pride is not only celebrated outside, but also online, particularly across social media. People share posts with their experiences taking part in Pride marches and events, voice their support for the LGBTQ community, and update their profile photos with colourful Pride-themed frames.
Although it has come with years of struggle, today, many of us can support the LGBTQ civil rights movement, freely and without government interference. And yet, many around the world still cannot.
On July 26, human rights activist Evdokia Romanova, a staff member at the Samara Regional Public LGBT Movement and a member of the Youth Coalition for Sexual and Reproductive Rights, was summoned by the Russian government and notified that she was under police investigation for an administrative penalty of $1,750. This so-called “administrative penalty” was for “propaganda of nontraditional sexual relationships in front of minors.”
Her actual crime? Sharing pro-LGBTQ links on Facebook.
Since then, Evdokia’s identity has gone public and she faces daily harassment — even death threats — all for supporting a cause she believes in, and exercising her right to freedom of expression online.
We caught up with her to learn more about what happened, how she’s doing now, and what her hopes are for the future.
Evdokia, can you describe to us the nature of what you shared on Facebook and the events that unfolded?
I believe that the main accusation is based on web content from the Youth Coalition for Sexual and Reproductive Rights, a human rights organization that advocates for the sexual and reproductive rights of young people worldwide.
Let me start from the beginning. On July 26th, I was invited to submit witness testimony (at least that’s what I was told on the phone by the police officer) by the local police station. When I arrived, they charged me with Propaganda of Nontraditional Sexual relationships in front of minors (Administrative penalty Part 2 Code 6.21).
This accusation was a total shock. I declined giving the government authorities a testimony, aware that due to the nature of my human rights work, it would not be wise for me to talk to them without a lawyer.
While they were writing down the protocol, I called my lawyer on the phone and she told me to be very careful about signing any documents. She also asked me to take pictures of the case materials. However, the police officer refused to provide me with any access to the case materials, and only after they spoke with my lawyer, was I able to take a look.
The case materials contained some of my Facebook posts from the 2015-2016, when I was doing reposts from the Youth Coalition for Sexual and Reproductive Rights’ Facebook page. For example, one of the posts was a repost from the Guardian, with an article that focused on the legalization of gay marriage.
Unfortunately, I was unable to take a closer look at the case materials, because an unidentified person in the police department took them away and started yelling at the police officer who gave them to me. Then, this same person started asking me about an Austrian man in Samara residing in my apartment. They mentioned that perhaps they would check his documents and see if there were any problems with his visa. I was in complete shock because this person is my partner, and I have no idea how the authorities received such personal information regarding my private life.
After I signed the protocol, I was able to leave the station. Since then, although my lawyer has tried repeatedly, I’ve not received any case materials, only a letter stating the date of my court hearing on September 18th.
You are well-known for your sexual and SRHR (sexual and reproductive health and rights) activism. When did you begin to fight for this cause and what inspired you to get involved?
It started at a local NGO in my home city Samara. We were doing a theater project to educate young people on the topic of healthy sexual behavior, in an effort to promote HIV prevention. Later, I became a staff member of that NGO.
At first, I was more inspired by the theater component of the project, but later, I was drawn to the human rights aspect of sexuality education and promoting the rights of people living with HIV. Today, I conduct my activism on a global scale, and I’m inspired by the stories of the people who are struggling in my country and beyond.
Russia has a long history with online censorship, and even recently banned VPNs. What are your thoughts on the importance of online expression, and what do you believe the government’s actions mean for Russian society?
Online expression is extremely important, especially in a country like Russia, where it is so difficult to organize street protests to express our opposition to the authorities’ actions. I am very sad to see that many human rights activists are forced to leave the country, and most NGO’s get shut down or labeled as “international agents”.
Online platforms remain one of the few means of speaking our mind and voicing our disagreement with the human rights violations.
If the government’s policies continue this way, civil society will eventually be totally silent. There will be no human rights violations – because there will be no one talking about them. This deeply saddens me as I think about the fact that every government in this world violates human rights in one way or another, and we need to bring these issues to light.
What can people around the world do to support your case, your cause, and brave activists, like yourself?
How can people support me? It’s a difficult question. Perhaps sharing this information and talking about this case with others can help…
Truthfully, I don’t feel brave. I feel very scared and frustrated, and very, very tired.
I have to wonder why it’s not permissible for me to repost an article from the Guardian, but why people are allowed to post comments on social networks, under my picture, describing the ways I should be murdered?
I really hope I can win this case in the court. If so, I hope it will serve as an exemplary case for others in this situation. Most of all, I hope that our government will rethink Administrative Penalty Part 2 6.2, and ultimately cancel this discriminatory legislation.
If you would like to support Evdokia Romanova, please send an e-mail to the Police Department in the Samara Region (firstname.lastname@example.org) to tell them that you disagree with the accusations against her, based on Part 2 6.21 Code of Administrative Penalty (rus. ч. 2 ст. 6.21 Кодекса об административных правонарушениях). You can also participate in Amnesty International’s call for Urgent Action.
Want to join us in the fight for freedom of online expression? Get involved with the cause at Unblock The Web.