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With Putin’s signature, ‘fake news’ bill becomes law

Russian President Vladimir Putin gestures as he meets with members of the public in Simferopol, Crimea, on March 18. (Yuri Kadobnov/Pool/EPA-EFE/REX/Shutterstock)

Russian President Vladimir Putin has signed into law a set of bills that will make it illegal to spread “fake news.”

The legislation seeks to punish the distribution of information that “exhibits blatant disrespect for the society, government, official government symbols, constitution or governmental bodies of Russia.”

Prosecutors can direct their complaints about online media to the state, which can block access to websites if the offending material isn’t taken down.

This, experts say, is new. “The Prosecutor’s office may now block such fake news sources prior to the judicial decision. It gives the Prosecutor’s office an extremely high authority and almost completely eliminates the Russian (albeit completely non-free) courts from the game,” Maria Snegovaya, an adjunct fellow at the Center for European Policy Analysis, wrote in an email.

“In other words, it significantly expands the repressive power of Russia’s repressive apparatus. This may be compared to the Stalin’s Troika, a commission of three for express judgment in the Soviet Union during the time of Joseph Stalin who issued sentences to people after simplified, speedy investigations and without a public and fair trial,” she added.

Under separate legislation — written by the same parliamentarian, Andrei Klishas of Putin’s United Russia party — publications that repeatedly spread “fake news” will face fines of up to 1.5 million rubles, or $22,900. And when it comes to insulting authorities, repeat offenders will face a fine of up to 300,000 rubles — and 15 days in jail.

Critics have said that the legislation amounts to “direct censorship,” and a petition saying as much was, as the Moscow Times noted, signed by more than 100 people, including Ludmila Ulitskaya, a well-known novelist and short-story writer. Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov said: “This sphere of fake news, insulting and so on, is regulated fairly harshly in many countries of the world including Europe. It is therefore, of course, necessary to do it in our country, too."

But experts say that, counter to Peskov’s protestations, the laws do mark a significant shift.

“Russia has not historically had major constraints on Internet freedom. The Internet has thus been one realm in which full diversity of opinion and free expression, even on the most sensitive political topics, were generally permitted,” Matthew Rojansky, director of the Wilson Center’s Kennan Institute, wrote in an email. “The prosecutor general now has essentially unconstrained authority to determine that any speech is unacceptable under the new law.”

In practice, authorities may have already been punishing those they have seen as writing critically of them, but the routes by which they did it, Rojansky wrote, were more circuitous and time-consuming.

“Now it’s much more straightforward: If the state considers any online speech extremist, it can block it, and it can severely punish the speaker,” Rojansky wrote. “One consequence may be to make it nearly impossible for individuals or groups to call for public protest activity against any action taken by the state.”