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.