Ivan Ovsyannikov: How Russia’s New Laws on Disrespecting the Authorities and Fake News Will Play Out

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Russia: How Will the Laws on Disrespecting the Authorities and Fake News Play Out?
Ivan Ovsyannikov
Eurasianet
March 26, 2019

Six months after easing punishments for speaking out on the internet, Vladimir Putin has signed laws that would restrict freedom of speech in Russia, argue civil rights activists.

People who are deemed to have disrespectfully criticized the Russian authorities and disseminated fake news face blocked websites and stiff fines.

The new laws do not explain how to distinguish ordinary criticism of the authorities from disrespectful criticism, and fake news from honest mistakes or the truth, in cases in which the authorities have decided to declare it fake. Defining disrespect and unreliable information has been left to the discretion of the authorities.

How the New Laws Are Worded
According to Russian Federal Law No. FZ-30 and Russian Federal Law No. FZ-31, which have amended the previous law “On Information, Information Technology, and Information Security” (Russian Federal Law No. FZ-149, dated July 27, 2006), people who disseminate “unreliable socially significant information in the guise of reliable news” could be fined, under the corresponding amendments to the Russian Federal Administrative Offenses Code, between 30,000 rubles and one million rubles, while people who voice their “flagrant disrespect” for society, the state, its authorities, and its symbols “improperly” could be fined between 30,000 rubles and 300,000 rubles.

On March 18, 2019, Putin signed the corresponding law bills, as previously passed by the State Duma and the Federation Council, into law.

Russia’s federal communications watchdog Roskomnadzor now has the power to restrict access to a website that has published “false” or “disrespectful” claims, according to law enforcement agencies, without a court’s sanction.

Both law bills were tabled in the Russian parliament by Andrei Klishas, who formally represents Krasnoyarsk Territory in the Federation Council, the parliament’s nominal upper house. Klishas had previously coauthored law bills on making the Runet autonomous, on stiffening punishments for advocating separatism, on breaking rules for holding political rallies, on desecrating the national anthem, and on declaring media outlets “foreign agents.”

klishasAndrei Klishas, a member of the Russian Federation Council for Krasnoyarsk Territory. Photo courtesy of Ilya Pitalev/RIA Novosti and RBC

The Russian Government Will Be Able to Pinpoint and Block Bad News
Despite the prohibitive bent of MP Klishas’s lawmaking, he heads United Russia’s “liberal platform,” stressing that his law bills are not attempted crackdowns. When discussing the law criminalizing disrespect for the state and society, Klishas pointed to European precedents.

“The rules existing in Europe say you can criticize the authorities as much as you like and demand their resignation. […] But when you communicate with the authorities, you should show respect, because they did not appear out of the blue. They are the outcome of people’s choices,” Klishas told Znak.com in an interview published in February 2019.*

As for the law on so-called fake news, MP Klishas stressed only people who distributed knowingly false information that engendered panic and endangered society had to fear prosecution, not reporters and bloggers who made honest mistakes, he told the website.

Klishas’s stance is not shared by the Russian Presidential Council for Civil Society and Human Rights, which described his law bills as unacceptable, anti-constitutional, and a threat to the public.

“The way in which these innumerable, insane law bills are tabled reveals a simple desire to curry favor with the regime. They generate a sense of legal uncertainty. First, swearing was criminalized. Then ‘extremism’ and ‘foreign agents’ were targeted. Now fake news and ‘disrespect for the authorities’ have been added to the list. Give the well-known practice of selectively charging and convicting people for these crimes, no one knows what might get them in trouble,” says journalist and presidential human rights council member Leonid Nikitinsky.

The law on fake news does not stipulate how real news should be differentiated from counterfeits, which makes the law a bogeyman, argues Nikitinsky. The authorities can use it to trip up undesirable journalists and silence unwanted news.

Nikitinsky notes that, while Russian state propaganda is chockablock with fake news, it is is independent media that are primarily at risk of being penalized for violating the new law.

New Prohibitions Make Up for Easing of Old Bans
Pavel Chikov, head of the Agora International Human Rights Group, argues the penalties for disrespecting the authorities and fake news are meant to compensate for the partial decriminalization, in November of last year, of “extremist” statements published on the internet.

After first-time convictions for public incitement to hatred or enmity (Russian Federal Criminal Code Article 282 Part 1) were reclassified as administrative offenses, Russian police lost part of their workload. Under the so-called quota system, in which law enforcers are evaluated according to the number of crimes they have solved, the introduction of new offenses in the Administrative Offenses Code can generate new possibilities for fudging the statistics on cleared cases and conviction rates.

On the other hand, the amended law appears “liberal” only when compared with its earlier redaction, which stipulated a maximum of five years in prison for careless statements on the internet.

Improper Does Not Mean “Obscene”
If the law against fake news would probably be applied selectively, administrative charges of disrespect for the authorities and society could be a large-scale phenomenon within a few years, argues Alexander Verkhovsky, head of the SOVA Information and Analysis Center.

“People are punished five times more often under the ‘anti-extremism’ articles in the Administrative Offenses Code than under the corresponding articles in the Criminal Code. The partial decriminalization of Criminal Code Article 282 shifts the proportion even more heavily toward administrative punishments. The introduction of new articles in the Administrative Offenses Code means there will be fewer criminal prosecutions and many more administrative prosecutions,” Verkhovsky predicts.

Last year’s easing of anti-extremist laws was justified by the fact that the mechanical application of Article 282 had produced a proliferation of inmates who had no relation to extremist groups. The administrative prosecution of “disrespect for the authorities” could also balloon into a crackdown against rank-and-file Russians.

“It is difficult to predict the extent to which such cases will be politically motivated,” says Verkhovsky.

Prosecuting people of disrespect for the authorities is complicated by the lack of clarity over what can be said and what cannot. According to Roskomnadzor’s official clarification, which was not issued in connection with the new law, “four well-known words (kh.., p…., e…., and b….), as well as the words and expressions derived from them,” are considered obscene.**

Verkhovsky stresses, however, that improper does not mean obscene. The new law does not define what it means by “improperly.”

Nikitinsky agrees.

“You can arbitrarily call anything improper,” he says.

The Authorities Are More Sensitive to Criticism 
According to Chikov, the passage of Klishas’s law bills is the regime’s knee-jerk reaction to its dwindling popularity. After the pension reform of summer and autumn 2018, the ratings of Russia’s supreme executive and legislative authorities took a severe hit. Also, according to a poll done by VTsIOM, a year after the last presidential election, in March 2018, Putin is trusted by 33.4% of Russians, a drop of 21.9% from March 2018.

For example, in March 2018, a court in Naberezhnye Chelny sentenced activist Karim Yamadayev to twenty-eight days in jail for erecting a fake headstone for President Putin by way protesting the law bill that would create a “sovereign” Runet, if passed into law.

putin doa“Vladimir Vladimirovich Putin, 1952–2019.” Image courtesy of BBC Russian Service

In summer of 2018, Petersburg activist Varya Mikhaylova was fined 160,000 rubles for publicly displaying the picture 9 Stages of the Supreme Leader’s Decomposition, which also depicts Putin, during the city’s annual May Day march. Despite the fact the march itself was legal, the picture had not been vetted by the police. As Mikhaylova admits, she was completely surprised when she was detained, since she has a poor sense of the line between what is acceptable and what is forbidden.

The Kremlin is likely to use the new laws to crack down on its most audacious critics.

varyaVarya Mikhaylova (center, with megaphone), carrying {rodina}’s 9 Stages of the Supreme Leader’s Decomposition as she marched with the Party of the Dead bloc in last year’s May Day demo in Petersburg. Photo by Elena Lukyanova. Courtesy of Novaya Gazeta

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* Members of the Federation Council are not “chosen by people” in the sense of free and fair elections, but appointed by President Putin via highly stage-managed “elections” in the legislatures and parliaments of the Russian regions they only nominally represent. Aided and abetted by lazy journalists and political spin doctors, the thoroughly non-elected members of the Federation Council, whose only function is to rubber-stamp destructive law bills like the two described in the article, have taken to calling themselves “senators” in recent years, although Russia has no senate or senators. TRR

** I.e., khui (“dick”), pizda (“cunt”), ebat‘ (“fuck”), bliad‘ (“bitch”), all of which are indeed incredibly productive roots in colloquial Russian. TRR

Ivan Ovsyannikov is a member of the Russian Socialist Movement (RSD) and a trade union organizer. Lead photo and translation by the Russian Reader. All other photos featured in the translation were selected by me and were not included in the original article, as published on Eurasianet.

Getting (No) Satisfaction

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“How the European Court of Human Rights Did in 2017.” Romania, Russia, Turkey, Ukraine, Hungary, Azerbaijan, Georgia, Armenia, and Poland were the the leaders in terms of numbers of complaints the ECHR agreed to consider further, while Russia was number one in terms of rulings made against it. Among the most complaints from Russia were cases involving the right to liberty and security, the right to be protected from inhumane, humiliating treatment, the right to effective medical treatment, to right to a fair trial, and property rights. Source: ECHR. Courtesy of Vedomosti

Russia Leads in the Number of Human Rights Violations Confirmed by the European Court of Human Rights 
This Is Due to the Ineffectiveness of Russia’s Courts, One Expert Argues 
Anastasia Kornya
Vedomosti
January 26, 2018

Russia ranks second among Council of Europe member countries in numbers of complaints made to the European Court of Human Rights (ECHR) and ranks first in number of violations of the European Convention on Human Rights, according to a report on the court’s work in 2017, presented on Thursday by ECHR President Guido Raimondi. Last year, the ECHR rendered a total of 1,068 decisions: 305 of these decisions, or 29%, concerned complaints from Russia. In 293 of these cases, the court ruled that at least one article of the human rights convention had been violated. As of January 1, 2018, 7,747 cases from Russia were in proceedings at the ECHR. Only Romania has supplied the court with more cases: 9,920. In 2017, the 49% of complaints filed against Russia and deemed worthy of consideration amounted to nearly half of all cases accepted by the court for further review.

Pavel Chikov, head of the Agora International Human Rights Group, draws attention to the nature of the cases Russia has lost. They account for 66% of all of the ECHR’s rulings on the right to life, half of its rulings on torture, inhumane treatment or ineffective investigation of complaints of torture and inhumane treatment, and half of all rulings on the lack of “effective legal recourse” and groundless arrests. Finally, Russian plaintiffs won 38% of all cases involving the right to property. Chikov notes that not only has the number of rulings against Russia increased (by a third: from 222 to 305), but the number of complaints filed in Strasbourg has also experienced a sharp upturn. Chikov explains this both in technical terms (the ECHR has taken care of its backlog of cases and accelerated its document review process) and as due to the worsening overall human rights situation in Russia. The ineffectiveness of the country’s own tools for defending people’s rights has led to Russia’s becoming the most problematic country in Europe in this sense.

Russia consistently fulfills its international obligations, including implementing ECHR rulings, although some of them are flagrantly politicized, objects Andrei Klishas chair of the Federation Council Committee on Nation Building. Lately, there has been a tendency to endow the ECHR with the powers of a supranational body, but Russia acknowledges its powers only as an optional mechanism for protecting rights [sic]. National bodies remain the main mechanisms, including the Russian Constitutional Court, Klishas underscores.

The overall circumstances surrounding Russian cases in the ECHR is workaday: nothing overly worrisome has happened, argues Yuri Berestnev, editor in chief of the Bulletin of the European Court of Human Rights (in Russian). According to Berestnev, the growth of rulings in cases against Russia was to be expected, and the cause is purely technical. For three years, the court was completely focused on weeding out flagrantly unacceptable complaints from Russia. The Russian Justice Ministry dispatched a group of twenty Russian attorneys to help the ECHR clear up the logjam by filtering out several tens of thousands of complaints. [Sic!] The remaining complaints have good prospects. In late 2017, the court had accepted 3,000 complaints from Russia for further review, so the number of rulings went up from last year, explains Berestnev. He likewise notes that, in the autumn, the ECHR closed proceedings in 12,000 complaints from Ukraine, pointing out that the systematic problem of the non-fulfillment of decisions by national courts, due to the lack of financial means on the part of member states, should be discussed further by the Council of Europe’s Committee of Ministers. Russia has successfully managed to deal with the same problem, recalls Berestnev.

Translated by the Russian Reader

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Opposition Leader Navalny Targets Kremlin in European Court
The Associated Press
January 24, 2018

STRASBOURG, France — Russian opposition leader Alexei Navalny on Wednesday appeared at a hearing at the European Court of Human Rights into whether Russian authorities violated his rights through numerous arrests.

The court ruled last year that seven of those arrests were unlawful and ordered Russia to pay 63,000 euros (about $67,000) in compensation, but the Russian government appealed.

Proving that Russian authorities had political motives in arresting him and not allowing his rallies to go ahead would set an important precedent for activists across Russia, Navalny told reporters outside the courtroom in the French city of Strasbourg Wednesday.

“This case is important not only for me but also for other people in Russia, especially in the regions because they are stripped of the freedom of assembly,” he said. “If the European Court for Human Rights sees political motives in those cases—and I think we have presented enough evidence for this today—it will make an important precedent in Russia.”

A final ruling is expected at a later date.

Russian President Vladimir Putin’s most serious political foe, Navalny wants to mount a boycott of the March presidential elections after he was barred from running.

Navalny has faced fraud charges viewed as political retribution for investigating corruption and leading protests. A Moscow court this week ordered the closure of a foundation that he used for his failed election campaign.

Navalny mounted a sprawling grassroots presidential campaign before he was officially barred from running in December. Navalny’s boycott campaign might cut the voter turnout, which would be an embarrassment for the Kremlin.