Russia: New laws threaten freedom of expression and media freedom

01 April 2019 – With the adoption of two new laws criminalising ´insult´ to the state and the dissemination of ´fake news´, as well as plans to increase government control of the Internet, the Russian authorities are imposing further, excessive restrictions on freedom of expression and undermining media freedom, PEN International, PEN Moscow and St Petersburg PEN said today.

On 18 March 2019, President Vladimir Putin signed into law two controversial bills after they were approved earlier in the month by the State Duma and Federation Council, the Russian Parliament’s lower and upper chambers. The first law criminalizes the publication of online materials deemed to display ´blatant disrespect´ of the state, official symbols, society, the Constitution and public bodies, with fines of up to 300,000 roubles (approximately US$4,600) and up to 15 days in jail. According to the second law, the dissemination of ‘fake news´ through the media or online can result in fines of up to 1.5 million roubles (approximately US$23,300). Roskomnadzor, the government agency tasked with overseeing online content and mass media, can block access to pages without a court order if the material is not immediately deleted.

Russia’s own Presidential Council for Civil Society and Human Rights, as well as scores of other national human rights groups, had called on Parliament to reject the bills. On 12 March, over 100 journalists, writers, editors and publishers – members of PEN Moscow, St Petersburg PEN and the Free Word Association – signed a statement condemning the bills as establishing ‘a direct censorship regime’ in the country. The statements reads:

‘The matter at hand is a gross abuse of bureaucratic power, the cynical suppression of the constitutional rights of citizens of the Russian Federation’ and ‘is creating unbearable discriminatory conditions for the Russian media industry. It concludes that the bills represent ‘state repression against the entire journalistic and literary community.’ 

The bills are part of a wider crackdown on freedom of expression – both online and offline – as recently documented by PEN International, PEN Moscow and St Petersburg PEN. In February 2019, a draft law on Internet ‘sovereignty’ passed its first reading in the State Duma. The law, if adopted, would enable all internal internet traffic to operate mostly through domestic servers and exchanges in the event of an emergency or threat. Critics have likened the plan as an attempt to duplicate the Great Firewall of China, prompting thousands of people to march in Moscow against the bill.

‘The so-called digital sovereignty bill raises legitimate concerns of surveillance and censorship. The Russian authorities should abide by their international obligations to uphold free expression, instead of attempting to restrict access to content deemed harmful by the state’, said Carles Torner, Executive Director of PEN International.

PEN International, PEN Moscow and St Petersburg PEN call once again on the Russian authorities to immediately end their crackdown on freedom of expression and to create an environment in which free public debate can thrive.

For further details contact Aurélia Dondo at PEN International, Koops Mill, 162-164 Abbey Street, London, SE1 2AN, UK Tel: +44 (0) 20 7405 0338 email: Aurelia.dondo@pen-international.org

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