NEWS

Duma criminalises defamation in attempt to silence opposition
The pro-Putin United Russia party has re-criminalised defamation, just half a year since it was decriminalised  on the initiative of ex-president Dmitry Medvedev. The move is in line with Russian government’s authoritarian response to a number of mass protests. Since Vladimir Putin returned to the Kremlin, the State Duma has passed scandalous laws against rally organisers, NGOs […]
16 Jul 12

The pro-Putin United Russia party has re-criminalised defamation, just half a year since it was decriminalised  on the initiative of ex-president Dmitry Medvedev.

The move is in line with Russian government’s authoritarian response to a number of mass protests. Since Vladimir Putin returned to the Kremlin, the State Duma has passed scandalous laws against rally organisers, NGOs which receive financial support from abroad and a blacklist of websites, which lets authorities shut down websites without the court’s decision.

Like the previous controversial laws, this one was passed by Duma very quickly. The amendments were introduced on 6 July and were passed in a third hearing on 13 July, right after president Putin publicly supported the re-criminalisation of defamation. And just like before, street protests had no effect on the Duma’s United Russia majority.

The new law stipulates a manifold increase of fines. An individuals will pay a fine of up to 5 million roubles (around £GBP 100,000) for defamation.

The law adds a new article to the Criminal Code: libel and slander against a judge, prosecutor, investigator, assizer and bailiff. This will be punished by fines of up to 5 million roubles, or three years worth of the accused person’s salary, or by forced labour for up to 480 hours.

Human rights activists see it as an attempt to silence critics of Russia’s judicial system. Initiatives such as Sergei Magnitsky’s blacklist of Russian authorities, allegedly responsible for his death, are a popular way to protest against corrupted judges and investigators. Activists create websites with dossiers on judges who conduct controversial cases, for example, against opposition leaders and entrepreneurs.

journalist and rights activist Olga Romanova, an expert on Russia’s judicial system, , told Index on Censorship the re-criminalisation of defamation “doesn’t really change the situation in the country: there are no unbiased courts left.”

“They will use any article to shut you down in prison if they want to,” she said, adding that there is no point in stopping the creation of blacklists.

Defamation was decriminalised last November before parliamentary elections. This was praised by human rights advocates, as during previous years defamation legislation had traditionally been misused against opposition activists and independent journalists.

“In November it was decriminalised not for us, but for the authorities themselves, so that they could shoot documentaries like NTV’s ‘Anatomy of Protest’,” Romanova said. The film claimed protesters against allegedly fraudulent parliamentary elections received money for participating in rallies, and caused a number of protests against NTV itself.

So why is defamation back in the Criminal Code now? “While there’s no fair court in Russia, any judge can sue me for just stating that aloud,” Romanova says. “But they’d rather sue Alexey Navalny, or any other opposition leaders who are likely to run for president one day.” Russian law forbids anyone accused on criminal charges to run for any official post.

Navalny wrote on his Facebook page that he connects defamation recriminalisation with his new project, The Good Machine of Truth: which aims to spread information about controversial United Russia activities.

“The slogan that most annoys authorities — United Party is a party of crooks and thieves — is still legal, because slander and libel [according to Russian law – Index] is a crime against personality, not a corporate body,” he wrote, adding that his fellow opposition activists will carry on agitating against Putin.

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