Draconian new law tightens control over communication in Russia

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Reporters Without Borders is disturbed by the latest anti-terrorism legislation that the Duma (the lower house of the Russian parliament) adopted on third reading on 24 June, as it reinforces government control over communications and poses a new threat to the work of journalists.

Following a pattern set in recent years, the bill was presented by United Russia legislator Irina Yarovaya on 13 May and, despite the objections of digital economy representatives, was rushed through the Duma although it will have a major impact on fundamental freedoms.

All that remains now is the formality of ratification by the upper chamber and promulgation by President Putin. It could take effect as early as 20 July.

Many different sectors will be affected by the new law, which reduces the minimum age of criminal responsibility to 14 in some cases and criminalizes “failure to report” activity that is penalized by the law and “inducing mass disorder” – an expression often used to refer to unauthorized demonstrations.

Strengthening control over communications is one of the key aspects of the legislation. Telecom operators, blog platforms and social media will now have to store all communications and conversations for six months and make them available to the authorities, including the police and Federal Security Service (FSB), on request.

While this provision will probably little difference to the widespread surveillance already established in Russia, it will increase the vulnerability of international Internet giants, which are already exposed to the possibility of sanctions for refusing to cooperate with the authorities.

The postal service will have to monitor the content of packages while services offering encrypted messaging such as Whatsapp and Telegram will be required to help the FSB to decrypt any message on request or face a heavy fine.

Social networks will henceforth be subject to the same legal provisions as media outlets with respect to the crimes of inciting terrorism and condoning terrorism, which carry the possibility of seven-year jail terms.

As the security services interpret the charges of “terrorism” and “extremism” very broadly, an enhanced crackdown on social network users can be expected. Russian citizens are already being jailed every week over ordinary posts, reposts or comments on social networks. The victims have included a 21-year-old man sentenced to 15 years in prison in May over an image mocking an Orthodox baptism.

“This anti-terrorism package is a new disgrace that continues the increasingly repressive evolution in Russian legislation in recent years,” said Johann Bihr, the head of RSF’s Eastern Europe and Central Asia desk.

“The deliberately vague and loose terminology in the new law that was rushed through parliament over the unanimous objections of digital professionals will allow the authorities to use it for arbitrary and repressive purposes. It is one more example of the dangers of the worldwide tendency to steadily dismantle protection for fundamental rights in the name of combatting terrorism.”

Two days before its adoption, Russian Internet ombudsman Dmitri Marinichev described the anti-terrorism legislation as a “death sentence for Russian telecoms.” Edward Snowden, the US whistleblower currently living in exile in Russia, has called it “Russia's new Big Brother law” and said it was “an unworkable, unjustifiable violation of rights that should never be signed.”

Russia is ranked 148th out of 180 countries in RSF’s 2016 World Press Freedom Index.

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Updated on 01.07.2016