Reporters Without Borders (RSF) calls on the Russian parliament to abandon its headlong pursuit of increasingly draconian legislation after the Duma (lower house) passed a package of laws yesterday with harsh penalties for “fake news” and “disrespecting” the state.
In a day in which it lived up to its nickname of the “mad printer,” the Duma adopted laws that make “disrespect towards the state or society” punishable by up to 15 days in prison and “dissemination of fake news” punishable by astronomical fines, and allow the authorities to block such content immediately without reference to a judge.
The new laws will serve as additional weapons for use by Russia’s prosecutors and judges – whose lack of independence is notorious – in silencing criticism. The laws still need to be approved by the upper house and signed by President Putin, but this is just a formality, and they will take effect as soon as they are published in the official gazette.
“By constantly trampling on fundamental freedoms, Russia’s legislators are themselves at the forefront of disrespect for society and the state,” said Johann Bihr, the head of RSF’s Eastern Europe and Central Asia desk. “Protecting the constitution would require dismantling the arsenal of repressive legislation, not reinforcing it. If nothing stops this headlong advance, the Duma will soon have revived the Soviet penal code.”
Two of the four new laws target content that “expresses a manifest disrespect for society, the state, its official symbols, its constitution or its organs of power (...) in an unseemly manner that offends human dignity and public decency.”
This new offence will be punishable by fines of up to 100,000 rubles (1,350 euros) for first offenders, and 300,000 roubles (4,000 euros) or 15 days in prison for repeat offenders. And the offending content will have to be taken down or blocked within 24 hours if so required by the prosecutor’s office.
The two other new laws penalize “the dissemination of patently inexact information of general interest” that could be “prejudicial to citizens, their property, safety or public order or disrupt the functioning” of infrastructure. The penalties range from fines of up to 400,000 rubles (5,400 euros) for individuals to fines of 1. 5 million rubles (20,000 euros) for entities. Offending content will be subject to “immediate” removal or blocking.
The broad wording of the new laws and the automatic nature of the content blocking give the authorities a great deal of leeway to use them selectively and politically. Far from responding to a legal void, these provisions will just contribute to an already well-stocked repressive legislative arsenal.
The laws on insult and defamation have also become steadily harsher in recent years and “insulting a state representative” is heavily penalized. Although recently eased, the anti-extremism legislation is widely used to silence critics of how Russian society and state are currently organized, and control of the Internet has become much tighter since 2012.
Russia is ranked 148th out of 180 countries in RSF’s 2018 World Press Freedom Index.