Earlier this month, Russian legislators passed yet another law targeting media outlets and individuals that spread “derogatory reports” about authorities. From now on, sharing “fake news” and disrespecting government officials online will be criminalized, and authors of such posts will face steep fines.
The legislation bans distribution of any information that “exhibits blatant disrespect for the society, government, official government symbols, constitution or governmental bodies of Russia.”
The lower house of the Russian Parliament, or the State Duma, and the upper house, known as the Federation Council, approved several amendments to already existing information laws in the blink of an eye. The bill was introduced shortly before Christmas, the second and third readings took place at the beginning of March and the legislation was rapidly endorsed by Russian President Vladimir Putin.
“Our legislation strives for measures preventing and curbing the distribution of unreliable information that is presented as truthful facts on the Internet, as well as material containing indecent and obvious disrespect towards public and state institutions,” Andrei Klishas, the author of the legislation and member of the Federation Council, told The Globe Post.
Even in the agency's recently heightened censorship efforts, this is an unprecedented step.https://t.co/uuC0OlVKZR
— Meduza in English (@meduza_en) March 28, 2019
According to the law, an individual who is caught spreading “fake news” for the first time will have to pay a fine of up to 100,000 rubles ($1,600). An entity will have to pay up to 500,000 rubles ($7,800) in a similar situation. The imposed fines will increase dramatically for repeated offenders and reach up to 1.5 million rubles ($22,900), which could put a local online media outlet on the brink of bankruptcy.
“If an authority would want to shut down some media outlet, they are capable of finding so many ways to do it completely legally. So if you take our current legislation into account, you can just stop writing or publishing, because any subject can become political even if it is apolitical,” Anastasia Lotareva, editor-in-chief of Takie Dela (So It Goes) magazine, told The Globe Post.
Takie Dela, a popular independent and non-political online magazine that focuses on social journalism and storytelling, falls under categories of media that could become scrutinized by the government, if it deems their articles are showing any sign of disrespect or could potentially “create a threat of mass disturbance of public order.”
Journalism with a heavy slant towards social issues – covering such topics as drug consumption, suicide rates or even palliative care – has emerged as a way to report on complex subjects without running afoul of government oversight. But now, it might be scrutinized through the prism of new Russian regulations: most of these topics could be found inappropriate under the youth protection law.
Prosecutors are responsible in determining what constitutes “fake news” or “disrespect towards the authorities.” They can direct their complaints to the media watchdog, namely the federal media control agency Roskomnadzor, and the latter has the power to block access to any online page in case the offending article is not deleted.
As of today, more than 100 journalists, authors and human rights activists, including some popular figures, such as writer Lyudmila Ulitskaya, signed a petition fearing the “direct censorship” that might follow in the wake of this law.
“The definitions are very vague and the problem is they allow any kind of arbitrary usage,” Damir Gainutdivov, the lawyer for the international Agora rights group, told The Globe Post.
Last month Agora published an extensive report on the “freedom of Internet and delegation of repression in 2018,” where it registered 662,842 cases of restrictions on internet freedom. The year before, there were only 115,706 cases.
“I think the current bill will be used to selectively target the so-called non-systemic opposition. For instance, another research from [opposition leader Alexei] Navalny and his team about corruption could mean they are on the radar,” Gainutdivov said.
Navalny, who was barred from running for president in 2018, has become famous for his political demonstrations and publishing investigations on his YouTube channel about corrupt state officials, including Russia’s Prime Minister Dmitry Medvedev.
These videos were under rigorous scrutiny from government officials and were taken down several times. As a result of Navalny’s publications, people took to the streets protesting against despotism and corruption.
This case in particular might allow lawmakers and prosecutors to implement new regulations and put more pressure on online platforms on the basis of subsequent “massive public order disturbance.”
However, Federation Council member Klishas claimed that investigation such as Navalny’s often lack credibility.
“There is a lack of trust towards unverified information. Many people believe that journalistic investigations are ‘fake’ and they use their resources to attract public attention by publishing sensational news as a tool in political fight,” he claimed in response to questions about investigations concerning corruption in Russia.
In the past several years, Runet, as Russia’s internet is often referred to, has not been completely “free.” A series of laws has made it almost impossible to cover topics that mention homosexuality, drug consumption, or offend feelings of believers.
The most popular online pages in the country, like the social media network Vkontakte (the Russian version of Facebook) or Yandex (the Russian analog of Google) are now under complete control of authorities.
An effort to shut down Telegram messenger failed miserably in April 2018, after the company refused to hand over encryption codes requested by Roskomnadzor. As a result, millions of IP addresses were blocked, which led to a malfunction of online banking, private and state companies’ pages and ironically, Roskomnadzor’s website as well. The Telegram app managed to avoid being blocked by using servers outside of Russia. Those have been a thorn in the side of the Russian authorities and they are trying to expand their reach, as they have been pressuring Google to hand over information and block pages.
— Lukas Trakimavicius (@LukasTraki) March 29, 2019
The last crucial attempt to “unplug” Russia from the outside world was the passage of a law on Internet sovereignty. In the words of the Moscow Times, it was “designed to create a single command post from which authorities can manage and, if needed, halt information flow across Russian cyberspace.”
The restrictions of civil liberties has been “the general political course of the recent years,” Lotareva said.
Despite the advice from human rights activists and protesters opposing the crackdown on freedom of speech, Putin signed the bill, which will affect millions of Russians.
Operating with vague terms and even philosophical categories such as “truth,” “faith” and “trust,” the text of the law opens up enough room for discussion and criticism, as these categories can be stretched and made to mean virtually anything.