Russian President Vladimir Putin is poised to sign four bills into law allowing him to clamp down on the last vestiges of press freedom. The ranks of independent media and bloggers that have tried to work under the country’s ever-tightening web of censorship are nearing the end of the road.
Two of the bills will make it illegal to publish material “expressing in an indecent form a clear disrespect” for the Russian state, introducing fines of up to 300,000 rubles ($4,600) or 15 days in jail for the offense. The other two will ban the spread of fake news deemed to endanger public safety on pain of fines of as much as 1.5 million rubles.
Who decides whether an offense has been committed? Not a court, but Roskomnadzor, the government agency charged with overseeing media and the internet. It will be able to demand that offending information be taken down immediately. Failing that, it will be able to block access to the resource that published it.
The bills are blatantly anti-constitutional; Article 29 of Russia’s constitution expressly bans censorship. The disrespect laws also violate the European Convention on Human rights, which the country has ratified. Putin’s own Civil Society and Human Rights Council, which includes several judges and defense lawyers, has warned the legislation opens the door to arbitrary persecutions. Even government ministries and the prosecutor general’s office have argued against the bills, saying the definitions in them are too vague.
And yet, judging by the reaction of Putin’s press secretary on Wednesday, the president will sign them into effect. Dmitry Peskov refused to recognize that the bills amounted to censorship and described them as “well thought out.”
“There may be apprehension about how the draft law will be applied,” he said, “but we have often seen that this apprehension has been unjustified.”
Russian journalists, whose freedoms have been steadily eroded, have every reason to be apprehensive. Since 2012, when Putin returned to the presidency after a four-year stint as prime minister, they have been banned from advertising officially unsanctioned rallies, propagandizing “non-traditional sexual relations,” writing about organizations proscribed by the government – such as Islamic State – without referring to the ban, and pointing out that Crimea is annexed territory rather than Russian soil. Some media have been designated as “foreign agents.”
Journalists and Facebook users have complained loudly about most of these measures, yet they have seen no alternative but to accept them. Even liberal, generally anti-government media follow the rules for fear of being taken down. Last year, The New Times, an anti-Putin website, was fined a record 22 million rubles for not reporting its foreign funding to Roskomnadzor. It paid the fine after a crowdfunding campaign.
Under the new laws, the Kremlin wouldn’t need to look for pretexts like “justifying terrorism” or receiving foreign funds to close a website or jail a blogger. Any piece of news could be declared fake and dangerous to public safety without the need for even the fig leaf of a court ruling. Any criticism of the government could be interpreted as disrespect. If, like Peskov, you are tempted to say this is an exaggeration, consider why the Kremlin is introducing the legislation.
The “fake news” bill is ostensibly aimed against panic-mongering after tragedies like the Dec. 31 apartment building explosion in the steel city of Magnitogorsk. Rumors spread quickly on social networks and in local media that the blast in which 39 people were killed was a terror attack, and Islamic State claimed responsibility for it. Russian authorities vehemently denied that claim, insisting a household gas explosion caused the devastation. Whichever version of events is true, the government will only want the public to know about terror attacks when it’s planning some anti-terrorist action; otherwise it will simply act quickly to quash a “fake.”
In the case of the disrespect bill, the timing is important. Putin’s public approval ratings have declined sharply since his government’s unpopular decision to raise the retirement age. For the first time since 2013, a plurality of voters now thinks the country is going in the wrong direction.
In response, Putin has vowed to boost social and infrastructure spending – but these promises haven’t so far boosted his ratings. Clearly, it suits the Kremlin to have journalists and bloggers self-censor their criticism to make it more “respectful” and “constructive” while the extra money slowly works its magic.
Western battles against Russian fake news and propaganda are another important reason behind the new laws. The twisted logic goes more or less like this: If the West limits its citizens’ access to the Russian version of events, Moscow, too, must have similar tools at its disposal – especially since any journalist, blogger or publication could be a foreign saboteur. I have no doubt the new laws will be used every time Kremlin hacks sense Western interference, and they will be trigger-happy about it.
The new bills are meant to send self-censorship into overdrive. Judging by past experience, the effort should work after the initial indignation dies down. People watching Russia from outside should get used to relying exclusively on reporting from foreign news organizations that can afford the luxury of ignoring Roskomnadzor.
(c) 2019, Bloomberg Opinion · Leonid Bershidsky