New legislation is making it difficult to publish material that contradicts the official version of events.
On 18 March 2019 Russian President Vladimir Putin signed a set of controversial bills that criminalises spreading “fake news” and bans online shows of “disrespect” against the government, its officials, society, and state symbols.
Federal law from 18.03.2019 № 30-FZ on revision of the Federal law on information, information technologies and protection of information
For publishing “fake information of public value” private individuals could now face fines ranging from 30,000 ($462) to 100,000 rubles ($1,538), government officials – from 60,000 ($923) to 200,000 ($3,077) rubles, judicial entities – from 200,000 to 500,000 rubles ($7,695). Last-minute editions to the bill allowed registered mass media to promptly delete any material that was found to be “fake news” to avoid fines.
Dmitry Peskov, a Kremlin spokesperson, pointed to harsh regulations toward fake news being enacted around the world, including Europe, in justification of why the legislation was introduced and signed by the president. He was referring to the laws compelling social media companies to remove hate speech and other illegal content in France and Germany. In April 2019, the UK government released a white paper that proposed a regulatory framework to address “online harms”, including disinformation.
Prior to Putin’s approval of the law, Mikhail Fedotov, chairman of the Russian Human Rights Council, asked Putin to send the legislation back for revisions and stated the use of the term “fake news” implied that the state possessed the knowledge of “absolute truth”, whereas truth is always relative.
Journalists also criticised the legislation. “It looks like in its current form the law is aimed at protecting the elites rather than protecting society. It becomes an instrument of pressure on the media”, RBC editorial board co-manager Elizaveta Golikova told Vedomosti newspaper. Golikova added that the lack of definition for “fake news” meant that it was inevitable that meaningful information and important news would be removed from the web.
On his radio programme on 16 March, Alexey Venediktov, editor-in-chief of Echo Moskvy, addressed the issue: “The main catch with these laws […] is that the decision will be made by one person – the prosecutor. It’s an extrajudicial decision… which will start ruining business for those who do it. It’s a zone for lawlessness and corruption. Because if I’d like to shut down our competitors at Mayak radio, I’d just pay a bribe. And the prosecutor will shut them down. And then they’ll struggle for two years to reopen”.
Disrespect of the government
The second new restrictive law bans online shows of “disrespect” against the government, its officials, society, and state symbols. To qualify as disrespectful an article, comment or post “…must not only show obvious disrespect and be made in an inappropriate form, but also insult human dignity and public morality” according to the law. The publication of such material could lead to snowballing fines: 30,000 -100,000 rubles for the first offense, up to 200,000 rubles or 15 days detention for the second, and after that 300,000 rubles ($4,615) fine or arrest.
This law was used for the first time on 2 April 2019. The general prosecutor’s office supposedly gave directions to the Federal Service for Supervision of Communications, Information Technology and Mass Media, also known as Roskomnadzor, to force five Yaroslavl-based media outlets remove articles on graffiti that allegedly insulted President Putin. The graffiti (“Putin pidor”) suggested in an explicit form that Russian president was gay. Roskomnadzor called it preventive work.
Yaroslavl website Yarkub received an email demanding that they delete the article about the grafiti by midnight. Yarkub’s editor-in-chief later received a phone call from Roskomnadzor’s regional department. Yarkub saw the situation as an act of censorship. Another email from Roskomnadzor clarified that the article had to be deleted due to the new law about “disrespecting authorities” that came into force on 29 March, TJournal website reported.
Olga Prokhorova, the editor of another Yaroslavl-based media outlet, 76.ru, received five calls from Roskomnadzor with requests to delete a similar article about the graffiti. She was told by the officials that they were pressured “from far above” to prosecute media that published articles on the subject. However, the general prosecutor’s office denied any involvement, Interfax reported.
TJournal named five outlets that ended up deleting materials covering the graffiti: Echo Moskvy Yaroslavl, Yaroslavskiy Region, PRO Gorod, Pervyi Yaroslavskiy and Moskovskiy Komsomolets in Yaroslavl.
Another bill, approved by the Russian Duma in the first out of three readings on 2 April, includes potential fines for “unsanctioned” distribution of foreign press. Since 2017 foreign press distributors in Russia have had to seek official permission from state media regulator Roskomnadzor. The new bill classifies a violation of the law as an administrative offence, introduces fines of up to 30,000 rubles ($462) and decrees that the printed material will be seized.
It is not yet clear whether the bill would only address mass distribution or could be used to punish individuals who order a foreign magazine from abroad or bring one into the country on their return. The bill is reminiscent of the Soviet censoring mechanism, where most foreign press and literature was banned, and the limited quantities entering the country ended up in restricted sections of Russian state libraries – for official use only.
The Russian president’s Human Rights Council published a resolution in which it called the laws “an obviously disproportionate restriction of freedom of speech and opinion”, and stated they “form a ground for arbitrary persecution of citizens and organizations”.
OSCE Representative on Freedom of the Media Harlem Désir said in a statement: “These laws allow for broader restrictions and the censorship of online journalism and online speech. The definitions of allegedly offensive content are vaguely worded and will impact freedom of expression”.
Despite the criticism and concerns about threats to freedom of speech raised by journalists, activists and the Human Rights Council, both laws passed. When asked about the laws, the Kremlin spokesperson said neither could be classified as “censorship.”