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

markischer bunny

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

_________________________

* 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.

Advertisements

Contempt for Russia’s Kangaroo Courts May Soon Be Criminalized

kangaroo

Imposing Punishment for Belittling the Judiciary Proposed in Russia
Znak.com
February 28, 2019

Viktor Momotov, head of the Russian Federal Council of Judges, has said criminal punishments for “holding the justice system in contempt” should be introduced in Russia. He meant instances when public opinion was manipulated or the judiciary’s authority was belittled in order to exert pressure on courts.

“Obviously, there is a need to submit to public discussion the issue of criminal penalties for holding the justice system in contempt. We are ready to join this discussion, including in connection with the legislation, currently under consideration, that would criminalize contempt for government institutions,” Momotov said, according to Interfax.

Mamotov recalled that, in the Anglo-Saxon legal system, contempt of court [skandalizatsiya pravosudiya] referred to any action or published information meant to belittle a judge’s authority or affect his decision.

A striking example of this would be “indiscriminate and baseless criticism that undermined public confidence in the administration of justice,” Mamotov said.

In Europe, people who commit such violations are fined and even face prison terms.

According to Momotov, there are currently no such penalties in Russia, and so judges were “basically defenseless in the face of the lies spread by unscrupulous media.”

Thanks to the Angry Defender for the heads-up. Image courtesy of Owlcation.com. Translated by the Russian Reader

When the Russian Security Services Torture You, It’s Not a Crime

0604a889ed61d14cc21d41136fb478e8_1400x850 (1)

FSB and Russian Interior Ministry Oppose Criminalizing Torture
Mediazona
January 29, 2019

The FSB (Russian Federal Security Service) and Russian Interior Ministry have opposed amending the Russian Criminal Code to define torture as a discrete instance of official criminal misconduct, arguing it would be “superfluous,” according to the security service’s published response to a recommendation made by the Russian Presidential Council for Civil Society and Human Rights.

According to the FSB, torture was covered by Russian Criminal Code Articles 117.2.d (“maltreatment involving torture”) and 286.3.a  (“abuse of authority involving torture”).

The Interior Ministry voiced a similar opinion, listing the articles of the Criminal Code that, in its opinion, “fully” treat actions meeting the definition of torture.

The FSB has also opposed establishing a single database of detainees that would enable  loved ones of criminal suspects and people charged with crimes, as well as lawyers and members of the Public Monitoring Commissions, to discover their whereabouts.

The FSB argued this would enable people not involved in criminal investigations but who had a stake in their outcome, including criminal accomplices, to access information. It noted a database of this sort could threaten national security when cases of treason and espionage were investigated.

In September 2018, the Presidential Council for Civil Society and Human Rights held a special sixty-fourth session dealing with observation of the principles of openness and legality in penal institutions.

The council made a point of recommending the criminalization of torture per se in order to bring Russian criminal law into compliance with the UN Convention against Torture and Other Cruel, Inhuman or Degrading Treatment or Punishment.

The UN Committee against Torture has on several occasions recommended that Russia explicitly criminalize torture, but Russian authorities have ignored the recommendations, citing the articles in the Russian Criminal Code dealing with “maltreatment.”

“The conclusion here is that the Russian Federation is unable to explain how it prosecutes torture. This is simply not good enough,” Jens Modvig, chair of the UN Committee against Torture, said during a July 26, 2018, meeting in Geneva to discuss the sixth periodic report by the Russian Federation on its efforts to implement the Convention against Torture.

Translated by the Russian Reader. Illustration by Anna Morozova. Courtesy of Mediazona

Titan Beetles

titan beetle

“The titan beetle (Titanus giganteus) is a neotropical longhorn beetle, the sole species in the genus Titanus, and one of the largest known beetles. […] The short, curved and sharp mandibles are known to snap pencils in half and cut into human flesh. […] The adults defend themselves by hissing in warning and biting, and have sharp spines, as well as strong jaws.” Source: Wikipedia. Photo courtesy of Fluencia

Russian Government Approves Bills to Punish Fake News and “Flagrant Disrespect for the State” on the Internet
Mediazona
January 24, 2019

The Russian government has approved a bill criminalizing “flagrant disrespect for the state on the internet,” as well as stipulating fines for disseminating fake news, reports Interfax, which quotes Pavel Krasheninnikov, chair of the State Duma’s state building and legislation committee.

According to Krasheninnikov, the government’s commentary on the two law bills, which his committee had been waiting for, arrived tonight. Both reviews were positive.

Yesterday, the Prosecutor General’s Office sent the Duma a positive comment on the law bills, although previously it had refused to approve them.

In December 2018, MPs from the United Russia party tabled a law bill that would amend Article 20.1 of the Administrative Offenses Code (petty misconduct) by criminalizing the dissemination on the internet of information that “expresses in indecent form” a flagrant disrespect for society, the state, state symbols, and state bodies.

The law bill stipulates punishing violators with fines of up to 5,000 rubles or fifteen days in jail.

In addition, the bill’s drafters propose fines between 30,000 rubles and a million rubles for publishing false information.

Translated by the Russian Reader

The Annals of PreCrime: “An Absolute Nightmare”

precriminals.jpegUnder legislation currently tabled in the Russian parliament, these up-and-coming Russian businesswomen could do hard time in a penal colony for the wholly fanciful crime of “complying” with western sanctions against target businesses and individuals. Image courtesy of Credit Bank of Moscow

Sanctions Victims Refuse the Russian State’s Protection
Big Business Categorically Rejects Adopting Law on Anti-Sanctions
Yelizaveta Bazanova, Anna Kholyavko and Yekaterina Burlakova
Vedomosti
May 16, 2018

“An absolute nightmare”: that was the phrase used by the majority of lawyers and executives of Russian and foreign companies whom we asked to comment on plans to imprison people who “implemented” foreign sanctions. On Monday, a law bill to this effect, tabled by State Duma Speaker Vyacheslav Volodin, Federation Council Speaker Valentina Matviyenko, and leaders of all four parliamentary factions was passed in its first reading. The second reading has been scheduled for Thursday.

Under the law bill, if a company refuses to sign a public contract with an entity on the sanctions list, the company and its executives would be threatened with a maximum fine of ₽600,000 [approx. €8,200] and a maximum prison term of four years.

The board of the Russian Union of Industrialists and Entrepreneurs (RSPP) has decided passage of the law would be completely unacceptable. Companies would find themselves between the frying pan and the fire: violations of sanctions would threaten them with secondary sanctions, while complying with sanctions would make them criminally prosecutable in Russia.

The RSPP’s resolution was supported even by board members who had themselves been sanctioned.

“We believe it would cause further damage to the Russian economy, including business with foreign and Russian companies, and both Comrade Vekselberg [Renova Group Chair Viktor Vekselberg] and I voted for the resolution,” Interfax has quoted VTB Bank president Andrei Kostin as saying.

A spokesperson for Vekselberg did not respond to our questions. We were also unable to contact a spokesperson for Oleg Deripaska, another target of western sanctions, yesterday evening.

If passed, the law would be unlikely to have a considerable impact on how businesses operate, but it could be a means of threatening and pressuring them, the entrepreneurs we surveyed said unanimously. The wording of the law bill is harsh. Nearly anyone could be prosecuted on the flimsiest of pretexts, complained an executive at a transnational food producer.

The key risk is the absence of clear criteria for defining what would constitute a violation of the proposed law, our sources all agreed. Even the Russian Finance Ministry could be prosecuted. In its Eurobonds prospectus, it pledged not to use the funds raised to support entities targeted by western sanctions. In January, Alfa Bank warned Russian defense companies it would not handle their accounts due to sanctions. Spokespeople for the Finance Ministry and Alfa Bank did not respond to our inquiries.

The Kremlin has also been unhappy with the law bill, said a federal official close to the presidential administration.

The law bill, if passed, would also generate risks for those companies who refuse to do business in Crimea due to sanctions, said Alexei Panich, a partner at Herbert Smith Freehills. These include the state banks Sberbank and VTB, as well as mobile telecom operators. Andrei Isayev, deputy head of the State Duma’s United Russia faction, claimed  companies who do not open branches in Crimea would not be affected by the law. What was at stake, he said, were the ordinary deals and transactions companies perform almost automatically. However, refusal to do business with counterparts in Crimea could be considered a criminal offense under the terms of the law, said an attorney at a major international law firm. The law could complicate public offerings, the issuing of loans, and contracts and transactions, he specified.

An employee at a major international firm explained it would be hard to determine whether a company refused a deal with a counterpart due to their bad reputation or the threat of sanctions. An auto dealer agreed the threat of criminal prosecution would be powerful leverage. To encourage its partners to agree to a deal, a business could threaten to report them to law enforcement agencies, argued Panich.

The proposed measures were excessive, agreed a spokesperson for an agricultural commodities trader. Some companies have in-house rules restricting such deals. Our source said the law bill appeared to be means of coercing such companies. Theoretically, it could be used as leverage. A company or person on the Specially Designated Nationals And Blocked Persons List (SDN) could show up and demand another company do business with them, agreed the head of major private bank. It was difficult to imagine how banks would solve such dilemmas, he said.

“There are many ambiguities in how the law would be interpreted, and what specific actions or inactions would be punishable,” he concluded.

Foreign businesses could interpret the law bill as a signal it was time to wrap up their operations in Russia, said the vice-president of a major foreign company that produces popular consumer products. No one has any intention of sacrificing their top executives to the Russian law enforcement and judicial system.

All issuers of bonds include in their covenants the refusal to do business with entities targeted by sanctions. Perhaps expatriates who do not want to take risks would leave the country, argued an employee at a large foreign company.

Passing the bill into law would be a mistake, said political scientist Yevgeny Minchenko. The law would have to be seriously amended over time.

“Knowing how this could affect both Russian companies and foreign business operating in Russia, this is very risky decision in my opinion,” Minchenko told us.

Spokespeople for Sberbank and Credit Bank of Moscow declined to comment.

With additional reporting by Vladimir Shtanov, Darya Borisyak, Alexandra Astapenko, and Svetlana Bocharova

Translated by the Russian Reader

The War as Holy Writ

Victory Day parade in Moscow, May 9, 2016
Victory Day parade in Moscow, May 9, 2016

Communists Propose Equating Feelings of War Veterans with Feelings of Religious Believers
Grani.ru
May 8, 2016

A group of Communist Party MPs plans to submit a law bill to the State Duma that would criminalize insulting the feelings of war veterans and stipulate a punishment of up to three years of forced labor. As Gazeta.ru writes, if the draft law is adopted, Article 148 of the Criminal Code (violating the right to freedom of conscience and religion) would be amended.

The newly amended article, 148.1, is entitled “Insulting the feelings of Great Patriotic War [Second World War] veterans.” The Communists will send the bill to the government and the Supreme Court for review on May 10, immediately after the holidays.

There are three paragraphs in the new law. The first paragraph stipulates punishment for “public actions expressing clear disrespect for society and committed with the intent of insulting the feelings of Great Patriotic War veterans by deliberately distorting information about the Great Patriot War, or humiliating or belittling the heroism of the Armed Forces of the USSR.”

Violation of the law would be punishable by a fine of up to 300,000 rubles, or up to 240 hours of community service, or up to one year of forced labor.

The second paragraph stipulates criminal liability for “dismantling, moving, destroying or damaging Great Patriotic War monuments,” even if they are not listed as Great Patriotic War cultural heritage sites. In this case, a violation would be punishable by a fine of up to one million rubles, or up to 360 hours of community service, or up to one year of forced labor.

The maximum penalties are prescribed in paragraph three and cover the same actions, as listed above, if they are performed on May 9, or involve the abuse of office, or are committed by someone who has already been convicted of the same violation. In this case, the offender faces a fine of up to four million rubles, or up to 480 hours of community service, or up to three years of forced labor, and a ban on holding certain positions during the period in question.

Communist Sergei Obukhov, who is spearheading the initiative, coauthored the law on “insulting the feelings of religious believers,” adopted by the Duma in 2013 in the wake of the Pussy Riot trial.

In the explanatory note to the new law, Obukhov defends the need to protect the feelings of war veterans, drawing parallels with the adoption of law on insulting the feelings of religious believers. According to him, that law “does not extend to the belief in goodness and justice, the ideals for which the veterans of the Great Patriotic War fought.”

According to Obukhov, he and his colleagues have tried to draft the most non-repressive law possible, so the punishments stipulated do not include imprisonment. Obukhov calls the bill a “full-fledged legal mechanism for defending their truth about that terrible war as well as criminal protection of their honor and dignity.”

In November 2013, A Just Russia MP Oleg Mikheyev proposed punishing those who insulted the memory of the Great Patriotic War with up to seven years in prison or a fine of one million rubles. Mikheyev submitted a draft of amendments to the Criminal Code and Criminal Procedural Code to the State Duma.

Mikheyev proposed adding an article entitled “Insulting the memory of the Great Patriotic War” to the Criminal Code. The offense was described as follows: “Actions expressing clear disrespect for society and insulting the memory of the events, participants, veterans, and victims of the Great Patriotic War, and committed at the sites of Great Patriotic War monuments and the burial grounds of those involved in the Great Patriotic War.”

The draft law stipulated a fine of between 500,000 and one million rubles or the amount of the convicted offender’s income for a period of three to four years, or a prison term of up to seven years. Mikheyev explained this choice by analogy with Criminal Code Article 148 (insulting the feeling of religious believers), “insofar as both articles deal with the spiritual realm of human life, the realm of values.” As an example of “insulting the memory” of the war, he cited the articles of journalist Alexander Podrabinek.

In April 2014, Irina Yarovaya, head of the Duma’s security and anti-corruption committee, proposed criminalizing “desecration of days of Russian military glory and memorable dates” connected with the Great Patriotic War. The United Russia MP said the relevant amendments would be inserted into a draft law on “rehabilitating Nazism” during its second reading.

“We will propose equating liability for this crime with the liability for desecrating burial sites dedicated to the fight against fascism [sic] or victims of Nazism,” said Yarovaya.

Individuals accused of “desecrating days of military glory” were to face up to three years in prison, forced labor of up to five years, arrest for a period of three to six months, or five years in a penal colony.

Yarovaya said she had found a post on a social network containing a negative assessment of the May 9 holiday.

“I think such statements should be assessed not just morally or ethically, but from the viewpoint of criminal law,” Yarovaya said in this connection. “Because it is a deliberate crime aimed at desecrating the memory of the Great Patriotic War.”

Translated by the Russian Reader. Photo, above, courtesy of Oleg Yakovlev/RBC