Russia: New bills criminalising insults to the State and spread of ‘fake news’ threaten freedom of expression

UPDATE: On 7 March 2019, Russia’s State Duma approved in the third and final reading legislation to block websites that publish what authorities deem to be “fake news” and penalise websites that “insult” authorities, state symbols, and what the legislation vaguely describes as Russian “society.” To become law, the bills must be approved by the parliament’s upper chamber, the Federation Council, and signed by President Vladimir Putin.

Since the adoption of the draft laws in the first reading on 24 January 2019, the bills have undergone significant amendments, most of which increase restrictions. In particular, the fines for “insult of the state” were raised from 1000 to 5000 RUB (11 to £60 GBP) to 100,000 roubles, or about £1,150 for “first-time offenders, or up to 300.00 roubles (£3450) those who violate the law more than twice. The fines for fake news have increased by 100 times (from 5.000 rubles (£57 ) to up to 500.000 Rubles (£5750) for individuals. Authorities have ignored criticism of the extremely broad definitions used in both bills, including those of ARTICLE 19’s analysis.

On 24 January 2019, the Russian parliament approved the first reading of two highly contentious bills which would severely undermine freedom of expression. The first bill would enact punishments of fines and imprisonment for up to 15 days for publishing materials online that insult the state, official state symbols, the Russian Constitution and state authorities. The second bill seeks to ban citizens from publishing “false information” online and media outlets from doing the same both online and offline.

The first bill would amend the Law “On Information” adding a new article (15 1-1) to provide for blocking access to pages with content expressing “disrespect”. According to the draft bill, access to such information would be restricted without a court order. To do this, the prosecutor’s office would have to contact Roskomnadzor, the state censorship agency, which would notify the provider and oblige them to immediately block the website containing the material until the violation is eliminated.

The manifestation of “blatant disrespect” to the state would be considered “petty hooliganism” punishable by a fine of 1000-5000 RUB (11-60 GBP) or imprisonment for up to 15 days.

The second bill would also amend the existing Article 15.3 in the Law “On Information” and establish administrative responsibility for its violation. It would prohibit the online dissemination of “unreliable socially significant information”, which would constitute a “threat to life and health,” listing examples including massive violations of public order. The bill further amends the Code on Administrative Offenses and establishes fines for the distribution of “fake news” (as high as 5,000 RUB (60 GBP) for individuals and 1 million RUB (11,600 GBP) for businesses.

“In the context of a continuous crackdown on freedom of expression in Russia,  this legislation, if passed, would constitute another tool of repression to stifle public interest reporting on government misconduct and the expression of critical opinions, including the speech of the political opposition. It must be withdrawn” said Sarah Clarke, Head of Europe and Central Asia at ARTICLE 19.

International human rights standards do not permit restrictions on the right to freedom of expression which are made in order to protect “the state” or its symbols from insult or criticism. As the Johannesburg Principles on National Security, Freedom of Expression and Access to Information state: No one may be punished for criticising or insulting the nation, the state or its symbols, the government, its agencies, or public officials, or a foreign nation, state or its symbols, government, agency or public official unless the criticism or insult was intended and likely to incite imminent violence.

The UN Special Rapporteur on Freedom of Expression asserts that “international human rights law protects individuals and groups of people, not abstract notions or institutions that are subject to scrutiny, comment or criticism”.

ARTICLE 19 warns that enacting this legislation, ostensibly to combat “fake news”, would create a powerful instrument to control journalism. Allowing public officials to decide what counts as truth is tantamount to accepting that the forces in power have a right to silence views they don’t agree with, or beliefs they don’t hold. The joint declaration on freedom of expression and “fake news states “general prohibitions on the dissemination of information based on vague and ambiguous ideas, including ‘false news’ or ‘non-objective information’, are incompatible with international standards for restrictions on freedom of expression”.

We urge the Russian authorities to withdraw both draft bills and to stop the crackdown on the freedom of expression in Russia.