One of Russia’s few sources of information for the LGBTQ community on HIV/AIDS has reportedly been blocked for violating its anti-gay “propaganda” law.
On Sunday, the news website Parni Plus received a notice from Roskomnadzor, the country’s federal supervision agency for information technologies and communications, that it “contains data prohibited for distribution in the Russian Federation.”
Roskomnadzor claimed it was given the authority to issue an injunction against Parni Plus following a Jan. 26 ruling in the southern Altai territory, which borders the countries of China, Kazakhstan, and Mongolia. That verdict led to Gay.ru, Russia’s oldest LGBTQ website, being banned by regulators in April.
But Parni Plus was never informed the decision from the Burlinsky District Court, which named the site in the ruling, also applied to their webpage.
Roskomnadzor gave the site’s administrators 24 hours to comply with the order. But as in the case of Gay.ru, the regulatory agency did not specify which information needed to be removed in order to avoid being blocked by censors.
As of now, Parni Plus tells INTO the page is still accessible for Russian readers. Over the past two days, administrators say that they’ve been working to transfer the domainwhich is currently located on the country’s serversto Europe. The website claims it has already bought a new domain.
But if the local LGBTQ community is unable to access these resources, the team behind Parni Plus worries their loss will be extremely detrimental to a population with very little knowledge or information about HIV/AIDS.
Parni Plus (which translates to “Guys Plus”) was founded in 2008 by Evgeny Pisemsky, a Russian LGBTQ activist who created a peer support group for men affected by the virus two years earlier. Pisemsky, who was unavailable for comment, created the website because there were few publications geared toward informing the country’s queer and trans community about issues that affect them.
In addition to information about HIV, it also features LGBTQ-centric news stories from around the globe.
The page is all-volunteer. At any given time, around three to five people donate their time, resources, and even money to furthering Pisemsky’s mission to educate an extremely marginalized community with few other places to go for help.
“The basic idea is to remind people to get checked and to show people that there’s life afterward [if you’re HIV positive],” says tech admin Tima Timohin.
Before Timohin found Parni Plus, he had no idea where to go for advice about living with HIV. When he was first diagnosed, he thought that the condition would be “like having a headache or having the flu.” But because no one offered him real information about what his diagnosis meant, Timohin would later be hospitalized from extreme complications.
“People do not know anything about HIV, even though it’s been about 30 years,” he claims. “But people aren’t aware until they’re positive.”
Russia has one of the world’s most staggering HIV crises. An estimated one in 10 men who have sex with men (MSMs) are living with the virus, and the rate of new cases continues to increase. United Nations’ UNAIDS program claims that the Eurasian country had the third-highest rate of HIV contractions in 2015, lagging behind only Nigeria and South Africa.
The Russian Federal AIDS Center estimates that 1.1 million citizens are HIV positive, but those are only the recorded cases. Many individuals may not report their diagnosis for fear of discrimination.
In 2013, the State Duma unanimously passed a notorious anti-LGBTQ bill forbidding the spread of “information on nontraditional sexual relationships” to minors. But in truth, the propaganda law has led to a widespread crackdown virtually any aspect of queer lifefrom banning Pride parades to fining individuals for posting links about LGBTQ issues on Facebook.
Since the law was voted in five years ago, hate crimes related to sexual orientation or gender identity have more than doubled.
But Timohin says the propaganda law has also made it extremely difficult for HIV-positive individuals to “receive help,” whether it’s “the medicine or the consultation itself.” Before moving to Israel a few years ago, he had to travel all the way from Moscow to Siberia just to receive appropriate care.
“In Moscow, there was nothing leftno money, no nothing,” he claims. “When you go to the hospital, you have to take the whole day off because there are 20, 30 people in line waiting.”
Less than half of those living with HIV in Russia receive adequate treatment, as VICE News reported in February.
Although a website like Parni Plus is no substitute for receiving HIV medication or the care of a licensed physician, the website has a feature where users can receive consultation from a professional. Timohin says doctors work with their team to provide accurate information for those who write in with questions.
On the Parni Plus message board, readers have inquired about everything from living a partner who has HIV and having safe sex to where to find a therapist.
The platform, though, has reminded Timohin about the amount of work that still needs to be done when it comes to public awareness about the virus. During his phone conversation with INTO, he claimed others would be “amazed at the kinds of questions people ask.”
If Parni Plus were to be blocked by Roskomnadzor, there are no other resources like it in Russia.
Given the extremely high stakes involved, Parni Plus plans to challenge the decision in court. The website has already pulled together a team “who is going to help [them] fight,” but Timohin says the process will take “months and months.”
There is some precedent to suggest that the law is on their side.
The European Court of Human Rights (ECHR) ruled in June 2017 that Russia’s propaganda law “reinforces stigma, encourages homophobia, and discriminates against a vulnerable minority,” according to the global advocacy group Human Rights Watch. In a 6 to 1 decision, the court claimed the statute contravenes anti-discrimination policies set forth in the European Convention on Human Rights.
But Russia, despite vowing to adhere to that treaty back in 1998, has yet to change course on LGBTQ rights in the year since the ECHR ruling was handed down.
Meanwhile, media regulators have continued to censor websites and virtually any other digital resource geared toward the LGBTQ community. The popular queer website BlueSystem was banned in 2016. Elena Klimova, creator of the youth support website Children-404, was charged three times with violating the propaganda lawtwice unsuccessfully before she was eventually fined 50,000 rubles in July 2015.
Timohin doesn’t think Parni Plus will be victorious in its quest for vindication against Russian authorities. When Pavel Stotsko and Yevgeny Voitsekhovsky fought for their right to have their foreign marriage recognized earlier this year, they were forced into hidingand reportedly fled the country.
But the website says it doesn’t have any other choice but to try.
“I don’t believe [we will win],” Timohin says, bluntly. “Nobody believes it. But if we do nothing, nothing is going to happen.”
Photo via Justin Sullivan/Getty Images