Russian Bills Banning ‘Fake News,’ Insults Head To Putin For Signature

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(Article text ©2019 RFE/RL, Inc., Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty – rferl.org – March 13, 2019 – article text also appeared at rferl.org/a/russian-bills-banning-fake-news-insults-head-to-putin-for-signature/29819238.html)

Legislation enabling Russian authorities to block websites and hand out punishment for “fake news” and material deemed insulting to the state or the public is headed to President Vladimir Putin’s desk for his signature.

The legislation, which Putin’s own advisory human rights council says would groundlessly curb the freedom of expression, was approved by the upper parliament house, the Federation Council, in a 149-3 vote on March 13.

The bills would allow the authorities to block websites or Internet accounts that publish what they deem to be “fake news” and penalizing those who post material found to be insulting to state officials, state symbols, or Russian society.

Critics contend that the legislation, which Putin is widely expected to sign, is part of a Kremlin effort to increase control over the Internet and stifle dissent.

The Federation Council and the State Duma, which gave final approval to the bills on March 7, are both dominated by the ruling United Russia party.

On March 11, the Russian Presidential Council for Development of Civil Society and Human Rights urged the upper house to send the bills back to the Duma to be reworked.

The presidential council, whose advice is often ignored by Putin, cited the European Convention on Human Rights and said that freedom of expression cannot be restricted exclusively due to doubts about whether what is being expressed is true.

The “fake news” bill would empower the prosecutor-general and his deputies to determine what constitutes fake news without a court decision, after which the state media and communications watchdog Roskomnadzor would block the site or account.

The bill would set fines for publishing “fake news” at up to 100,000 rubles ($1,525) for individuals, 200,000 rubles for public officials, and 500,000 rubles for companies.

The “fake news” bill says publications officially registered with Roskomnadzor, including online media outlets, would be given a chance to remove reports deemed as fake news before their websites are blocked.

It says websites that are not registered with Roskomnadzor would be blocked without warning.

The other bill would establish fines of up to 100,000 rubles for insulting the Russian authorities, government agencies, the state, the public, the flag, or the constitution.

Repeat offenders would face bigger fines and could be jailed for up to 15 days.

Roskomnadzor would give Internet users 24 hours to remove material deemed by the prosecutor-general or his deputies to be insulting to the state or society, and those that failed to do so would be blocked, the bill says.

With reporting by Vedomosti, Meduza, and Dozhd