OCTOBER 14, 2015
ST. PETERSBURG, Russia—On July 21, 2015, the Russian Federation banned jw.org, the official website of Jehovah’s Witnesses, making it a criminal offense to promote it from within the federation. Russia is the only country in the world to ban jw.org.
Religious studies specialist and professor at the Academy of Labor and Social Relations in Moscow, Yekaterina Elbakyan, comments on jw.org: “I think the website is necessary because it contains objective information directly from Jehovah’s Witnesses about their organization rather than third-party opinions. . . . Not only are its members interested in the website, but also those who are simply interested in various religions. And I’m not only speaking about professional religious scholars like myself but also journalists and publicists who write about religion.”
“I think the website is necessary because it contains objective information directly from Jehovah’s Witnesses”—Yekaterina Elbakyan, Professor, Academy of Labor and Social Relations, Moscow
A legal expert at the Human Rights Institute in Moscow, Lev Levinson, puts this action by the government in historical context: “Twenty-first century Russia has a constitution that guarantees freedom of religion and equality of religious associations before the law. However, as in the 19th century, Russia is again restricting the freedom of sharing one’s religious views by confiscating literature and banning websites. And this is all being done by judges and experts who apply unlawful regulations under the guise of counteracting extremism.”
The ban is the latest development in a legal battle stretching back to 2013. On August 7 of that year, a Russian district court declared the website “extremist” during a secret trial, but that decision was reversed by a regional court on January 22, 2014. However, a Deputy of the Prosecutor General of the Russian Federation appealed to the Supreme Court of the Russian Federation to reinstate the trial decision. On December 2, 2014, the Supreme Court heard the prosecution’s appeal without the Witnesses present to defend themselves, as they were not properly notified of the hearing. The Supreme Court reinstated the trial decision, declaring the entire website “extremist” although the court conceded that the website no longer contained any religious material prohibited by the Russian authorities. The Witnesses contested the decision and appealed to the chairman of the Supreme Court, but without success. As a result of that decision, on July 21, 2015, the Ministry of Justice of the Russian Federation added the website to the Federal List of Extremist Materials, banning the website throughout Russia.
Yaroslav Sivulskiy, a spokesman for Jehovah’s Witnesses in Russia, comments on the impact of the ban: “We are disappointed that the Russian authorities have taken this unwarranted action. This ban curtails the worship of over 170,000 in this country who are Jehovah’s Witnesses. But when you consider that some 285,000 people in Russia accessed the website every day, it is clear that even those who are not members of our faith have been deprived of an excellent resource for Bible study.”
Speaking from the Witnesses’ world headquarters in Brooklyn, New York, J. R. Brown, an international spokesman for Jehovah’s Witnesses, states: “Our official website, jw.org, hosts award-winning videos, publications for Bible study in hundreds of languages, and the two most widely distributed magazines in the world, The Watchtower and Awake! It has been featured in some of the largest international book fairs and has even been used extensively in schools. It has benefited many communities around the world and was widely used in Russia. Really, this is a website that should be promoted.”