You may or may not have heard about the recent legislation that was signed into Russian law on Monday the 18th March, 2019. There are two new laws, to be specific, set to curb the dissemination of “unreliable information”, critical of the Russian government and any “obscene insults” directed at the government as a whole, or towards individual members.
To give you an idea of the scope of this two-pronged attack; a pictorial jibe aimed at the Russian flag is now illegal, as is a direct personal insult that targets Putin himself. The new laws are aimed squarely at internet, social media users, TV and radio broadcasters, digital news outlets and private individuals (essentially then: everyone) – although penalties vary subject to rank and status. An individual on social media is not considered the same as a large news organisation for instance.
The price of demonstrating “blatant disrespect” could reach 100,000 Rubles, whilst “false” information that results in a “mass violation of public order” may cost the distributor four times that figure or even more. Repeat offenders may face a 1,500,000 Ruble fine for each subsequent transgression or even short custodial sentences.
Unsurprisingly, critics of the new laws have highlighted the vagaries of the language used in such potent and far-reaching documents – plus the loopholes that could be exploited as a result. What legally constitutes a “mass violation of public order” for instance? An impromptu festival? A large protest that peacefully closes down a city centre? Or a riot with thrown bricks and petrol bombs? Perhaps all/any of the above? Would a public order violation based upon information that was demonstrably true therefore be exempt?
It seems that much of the key criteria comes under the banner of ‘fake news’ – a term we are already getting weary (and wary) of in the west. However the Duma attempt to define it in terms of “unverified information” delivered as factual that threatens: “…life …health or property, … mass public disorder or danger, or …(that)… disrupt(s) vital infrastructure, transport or social services, credit organizations, or energy, industrial, or communications facilities.”
In terms of personal “insult” of “offence”, the extremity of the crime would seem to depend upon the subjective feelings of the individual. An individual’s sensitivity to offence (justified or not) is a little hard to quantify as a barometer for criminality.
At any rate, the Presidential Council for Civil Society and Human Rights requested that both proposals be rejected in their current form and returned to the Duma for clarification and amendment. Much to their chagrin, this didn’t happen and the laws with their somewhat liberal and “open” language stand in force.
Powers also extend to the blocking of websites that refuse to promptly amend their output according to official requirements – with the subtext that the agent distributing the offending media is automatically “wrong” and the state is automatically “right”. There seems to be no route of appeal or redress – according to any and all reports that I have read.
There’s no reason why most of you would enter Russia and start hurling insults at president Putin via social media, but this latest move is just something to be aware of.