Press release

Russia: ARTICLE 19 urges Federation Council to protect free expression as State Duma approves re-criminalisation of defamation

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17 Jul 2012


On Friday 13 July 2012, the last day of the parliamentary session before summer recess, deputies in the Russian State Duma passed amendments that could make defamation a criminal offense punishable by a fine of up to 5 million rubles ($155,000) or up to five years in prison. ARTICLE 19 urges the upper house, the Federation Council, to veto the amendments and protect Russia’s right to freedom of expression.

“We are extremely concerned at this backwards step by the Russian authorities, which taken as part of a package of repressive legislative reform, signals a significant backslide in terms of freedom of expression,” stated Dr Agnes Callamard, ARTICLE 19 executive director. “If these amendments are brought into law there is a high likelihood that they will be used to target critical and oppositional voices in Russia.”

The move to re-criminalise defamation comes less than a year after former President Dmitry Medvedev downgraded defamation from a criminal to an administrative offence by removing it from the Criminal Code.

“We urge the Federation Council to stop the Putin government’s continuous attempts to undermine the Russian people’s right to freedom of expression and take the country backwards ,” she added.

In December 2011, the then Russian president Medvedev ordered reform of defamation laws in Russia. As a result defamation was removed from the Criminal Code. At the time, ARTICLE 19 did not praise the reform as rather than complete decriminalisation, defamation remained an administrative offence, which still amounts to a significant interference with freedom of expression. Moreover, the reform did not decriminalise the defaming of state officials, who preserved their powers to seek severe criminal penalties to ‘protect’ their reputation. However, it did remove the threat of a prison sentence and reduced the fines to 3,000 rubles (£60).

Since the return of President Putin earlier this year, there has been a wave of repressive legislation proposed, which appears aimed at restricting civil rights, particularly the fundamental rights to freedom of expression,  freedom of association and freedom of assembly. Last week, along with the amendments pertaining to defamation, two other pieces of legislation – the first branding NGOs receiving funding from abroad as ‘foreign agents’ and the second proposing an internet blacklist - passed through the Russian State Duma, the lower house of the parliament.

Note to Editors

ARTICLE 19, along with more than twenty international and local NGOs signed a letter regarding the NGO ‘foreign agent’ law – which can be accessed here