ARTICLE 19 has warned about Russia’s recent legislation introducing new restrictions on freedom of expression, ostensibly in response to the coronavirus crisis. The two laws signed by President Putin on 1 April impose harsh penalties on media organisations and individuals for spreading “knowingly false information” related to natural or man-made emergencies. This legislation comes on top of the existing prohibition of “false information”, which ARTICLE 19 found highly problematic and incompatible with international human rights standards. We call on the Russian Government to repeal the legislation.
Sarah Clarke, Head of Europe and Central Asia at ARTICLE 19 said:
“The new legislation seeks to establish the state’s monopoly on information about any actual or perceived emergencies. It makes it easy for the authorities to suppress any data deviating from the official narrative and punish journalists and ordinary citizens for openly questioning the efficacy of official responses.
“There is a genuine need to tackle the spread of potentially dangerous misinformation about coronavirus. However, it must not be used as a pretext to stifle open and critical debate on the unfolding crisis and how best to respond to it, or to prevent effective media scrutiny of the government’s action. Freedom of expression and access to information are not a hindrance but a vital part of an effective response to the coronavirus pandemic or any other emergency situation.”
The new laws include amending the Administrative Code, introducing new sanctions for legal entities, and an amendment to the Criminal Code, introducing a new offence to tighten sanctions imposed on individuals.
While the new laws are supposedly necessitated by the current pandemic, their application will not be limited to its duration. They are broadly worded to cover “false information” about any events that pose a potential threat to people’s lives or safety – and, more worryingly still, about government responses to such events. Media organisations will face fines of up to 5 million rubles (that may rise up to 10 million for repeated offences). Individuals will face criminal prosecution that may lead to severe financial penalties (e.g. fines equivalent to the person’s total income over the last 18 months) and prison sentences for up to 5 years.
ARTICLE 19 also notes that in their recent joint statement on access to and free flow of information during the coronavirus pandemic, the OSCE Media Freedom Representative, the UN Special Rapporteur on the promotion and protection of the right to freedom of opinion and expression, and the IACHR Special Rapporteur for Freedom of Expression have emphasised that human health depends not only accessible health care, but also on “access to accurate information about the nature of the threats and the means to protect oneself, one’s family, and one’s community”. They have also called for “exceptional efforts” on the part of the state to protect the work of journalists, while highlighting journalism’s “crucial function at a moment of public health emergency, particularly when it aims to inform the public of critical information and monitors government actions.”
ARTICLE 19 recognises that misinformation represents a serious challenge in addressing the current pandemic or other public health crisis. However, criminal prosecution and other coercive measures must not be a primary means of tackling it. Governments should instead focus on their own messaging by proactively disclosing information about the coronavirus, such as the number of cases, statistics on mortality and recovery, and government policies and response efforts. They should seek to combat dangerous myths and misconceptions by providing the public with up-to-date information and recommendations on prevention strategies through public education campaigns, dedicated webpages and on social media.
More details on ARTICLE 19’s position on appropriate responses to misinformation relating to the coronavirus pandemic can be found here.