Russian lawmakers recently approved two new laws that are expected to curb free speech and free press. The first gives authorities the ability to silence disrespect of Russian authorities, government agencies, the state, the public, the flag or the constitution. The second prohibits any internet content deemed “fake news” and demands internet service providers block anything that offends “public morality.”
The new laws allow prosecutors and their deputies to report content deemed fake news or offensive to Roskomnadzor, the Federal Supervision Agency for Information Technologies and Communications, which oversees online content. Roskomnadzor will also be given the power to decide what is considered “fake news,” and block sites without a court order.
Putin signs into law bills banning "fake news" and penalizing those who post content found to be insulting to state officials, state symbols, or Russian society (Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty)https://t.co/44580nmO7Zhttps://t.co/6qQVfsvAVc
— Techmeme (@Techmeme) March 18, 2019
All online publications are required to be registered with the Roskomnadzor. In the absence of proper registration, their sites can be taken down by authorities without warning. Otherwise, site owners will receive a notice that their site is at risk of being taken down.
Authorities can levy fines of up to 100,000 rubles—about $1,500—for propagating content that they deem disrespectful. Repeat offenders can be jailed up to 15 days. People deemed guilty of publishing “false information” can be punished with up to 400,000 rubles—about $6,000—in fines.
Many worry that the vague language of the laws give Russian authorities the power to block whatever they want, which would significantly curb freedom of speech and freedom of the press. More than 100 writers, cultural figures and human rights activists spoke out against the new laws. In a recently published statement, members of the International PEN Club, PEN-Moscow, and the St. Petersburg PEN Club declared, “It is about creating unbearable discriminatory conditions for the Russian media industry. We are talking about state repression against the entire journalistic and literary community.”
С сегодняшнего дня в России действует закон о запрете оскорбления власти в интернете. Я, Алексей Навальный, заявляю: Администрация президента и правительство РФ – сборище воров, мерзавцев и врагов России. Совет Федерации наполнен негодяями. Единая Россия – партия жуликов и воров.
— Alexey Navalny (@navalny) March 29, 2019
Recently, major opposition figure Alexei Navalny spoke out against the law,tweeting, “From today in Russia there is a law prohibiting the insult of power on the Internet. I, Alexey Navalny, declare: The Presidential Administration and the Government of the Russian Federation is a gathering of thieves, bastards and enemies of Russia. The Federation Council is filled with scoundrels. United Russia is a party of crooks and thieves.”
Passage of the new laws are part of a larger effort by the Russian government to silence dissent and critique by the press. Reporters Without Borders ranks the Russian Federation 148 out of 180 in the World Press Freedom Index 2017. Recent legislation has been proposed which would create an isolated, separate Russian internet. Roskomnadzor has also banned Virtual Private Networks, which strive to circumvent internet censorship and maintain anonymity online. Roskomnadzor also banned the popular encrypted messaging app, Telegram.
The new laws are also part of a growing trend of restricting press freedom in order to curb “fake news.” Egyptian authorities recently passed similar laws to crackdown on online dissent. In Malaysia, a restrictive “fake news” law recently garnered support, but was blocked by opposition groups. Singapore has recently unveiled similar legislation. All of these laws echo the words of U.S. President Donald Trump, whose rhetoric toward the press has gained attention around the world.