Although it has received only spotty mention in the press, the recent enactment by Russia of legislation limiting free speech, seems important to me--and of especial relevance to travel and tourism. Russian President Vladimir Putin signed both laws last month, and already a group of Dutch film-makers traveling within Russia (to make a film about sexual orientation in that country) have been prosecuted under one of the two statutes. Apart from their application to tourists, the laws seem to threaten athletes planning to attend the upcoming Winter Olympics in Sochi, Russia.
One of the laws prohibits "pro-homosexual propaganda". The other prohibits verbal attacks on religion or on the believers in religion. Although the anti-gay-propaganda law states that it covers only propaganda directed to minors, it has already been made clear that persons will be prosecuted if a minor is in the audience of people to whom that "propaganda" is directed, even though the young persons were not the intended recipient of the "propaganda". And thus, the Dutch film-makers were tried and convicted because their analysis of homosexual issues was heard by a group of persons that included a single 17-year-old.
Penalties for "pro-gay propaganda" include fines, imprisonment, and deportation.
Officials of gay organizations in the United States have pointed out that even expressions of affection between two homosexuals traveling in Russia would fall within the forbidden activity and lead to prosecution. Officials of the Olympics have wondered whether gay athletes holding hands might be considered criminals under Putin's new law. The law is so broad in scope that it might even prevent gay visitors from so much as speaking about their partners, even if those partners were back home. Many observers regard it as a gag order for tourists to not even discuss their lives.
The second law, prohibiting antii-religious arguments, seems an enlargement of the law against "hooliganism" that recently caused three members of the Russian feminist singing group called Pussy Riot to each be sentenced to two years in prison. Their particular offense was criticism of President Putin, although references were also made during their trial to "blasphemous" statements by them about the Russian Orthodox Church.
Several gay authors of Frommer travel guides have already informed me that they will no longer risk travel to Russia as long as the "pro-gay propaganda" statute is in effect. Some among them are calling for a broader boycott of all travel to Russia by all Americans, gay or not, as a protest against this denial of human rights. They refer not only to the new legislation, but to several recent incidents of physical assaults by prejudiced young Russians against gay persons, none of which seemed to interest Russian police. And of course, officials and athletes preparing to participate in the winter Olympics are seriously concerned.
In the words of another Frommer author: "The new Russian law is extremely dangerous, borne of dark nationalism, and through its virulent ignorance, the stage is set for a witch hunt. History has shown only too clearly what can happen when a government provides for the systematic silencing and disenfranchisement of an unpopular minority".
I will be returning to this subject as additional facts are known about the exact position of the Russian government relating to these two new laws. Certainly, the development should cause grave concern among right-minded people interested in the protection of human rights. As most of us have concluded, prejudice against other Americans because of their sexual orientation is un-American and should be condemned. And when such prejudice prevents Americans from traveling without fear in another country, that prejudice should also be condemned, and appropriate action taken by persons in travel and tourism.
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