European Court of Human Rights finds the blocking of an activist’s social media and internet posts by the Russian authorities violated his Article 10 rights

In September 2015 the applicant, Mr Kablis, a Russian national, informed Syktyvkar Town Administration of a picket-style protest over the arrest of Komi Republic officials, including the governor, on criminal charges. The Town Administration refused to authorise the picket, citing a regional law prohibiting public events in that part of the town, a central square called Stefanovskaya Square, and suggested another location.

Mr Kablis blogged about these developments and posted information on the social networking site, VKontakte. He urged people to join him in a “people’s assembly”.

Mr Kablis’s VKontakte account was blocked on the orders of a deputy prosecutor, who found that he had called for people to take part in an unlawful public event, as the picket had not been approved. A separate order restricted access to three entries on his blog about the event on the same grounds.

The Russian courts dismissed Mr Kablis’s challenges to the decisions on the picket and his internet activity.

Mr Kablis applied to the ECtHR, claiming, amongst other things, that the restrictions placed on his VKontakte account and his blog entries violated his Article 10 (freedom of expression) rights.

The ECtHR held that the orders to block Mr Kablis’s VKontakte account and to restrict access to three blog postings on the planned demonstration had amounted to a “prior restraint”, as prosecutors had acted before any court decision on the content being illegal. Such prior restraints were only justified in exceptional circumstances and required a clear legal framework so that the courts could review them effectively.

The ECtHR found that Russian prosecutors had wide powers to block access to internet content related to taking part in unauthorised demonstrations. That wide discretion hampered the courts in providing an effective review of decisions and meant successful legal challenges were likely to be difficult. The one-month deadline for reviews meant they might not finish before the event itself, depriving the proceedings of their meaning. The blocking procedure therefore lacked the necessary guarantees against abuse, as required by the ECtHR’s case law on prior restraint measures.

Further, the internet posts had concerned a picket on a matter of general public interest, only about 50 people had been expected to attend, and Mr Kablis had not called for violence or disorder. His breach of procedure in relation to public events had therefore been of a purely formal nature and minor in nature.

The ECtHR held that there had been no pressing social need for prior restraint measures and the courts had not given “relevant and sufficient reasons” for interfering with Mr Kablis’s rights. There had therefore been a violation of Article 10. (Kablis v Russia [2019] ECHR 318 (30 April 2019) — to read the judgment in full, click here).