On April 29, Russia’s Federation Council passed a law that tightens government control over the dissemination of information on the Internet and treats bloggers as journalists. A week earlier this so-called “antiterrorism package” was adopted by the State Duma. According to writer Alexander Podrabinek, this law fits in with the current trend in Russia of giving the government a free hand while imposing restrictions on citizens.
Free speech is currently going through tough times in Russia—although it has never really had it easy there. Censorship, both explicit and covert, has always undermined society’s ability to receive and disseminate information and literature. Suffice to recall that the nation’s first censorship code (known as the Izbornik Code) was formulated in 1703, whereas its first literary work, “Slovo o Polku Igoreve” (“The Tale of Igor’s Campaign”), was not discovered until a century later. In a sense, censorship in Russia was born before literature! Before the appearance of fiction, censorship was practiced with regard to religious texts in order to separate canonical works from apocryphal ones.
However, once in a while, free speech gained the upper hand before dropping back once again when yet another cold snap replaced the thaw. The most recent cold spell began when former KGB lieutenant colonel Vladimir Putin came to power at the beginning of the twenty-first century. Unfortunately, it was not difficult to predict the changes that occurred after his ascension. What else could a product of the KGB, the main responsibilities of which have always been to protect the regime and suppress freedom, do besides what he was accustomed to—that is, to protect the regime and suppress freedom.
The attack on free speech began during Putin’s first presidential term, starting with the Information Security Doctrine that was approved by Putin on September 9, 2000, and the crackdown on the NTV television channel in April 2001. During the following 13 years, all new legislation concerning the press has been directed at restricting the freedom of the media and increasing liability for violating media-related laws.
The path toward authoritarianism resembles a slide: it is hard to stay put in one place, and the farther a society goes, the faster it moves. Russia began moving especially fast in this direction after 2011, when Russian society unambiguously expressed its outrage with the fraudulent parliamentary and presidential elections. Putin consequently realized that the restructuring of the government along authoritarian lines should be accompanied by repressions against independent media. Furthermore, he concluded that such repressions should precede the restructuring in order to prevent an unpredictable reaction from citizens after they learned the truth about the position of independent media in the country.
The government has considerably increased its pressure on independent media in the last six weeks. In the wake of Russia’s aggression against Ukraine and its annexation of Crimea, the government’s need to launch a propaganda campaign that would provide the illusion of universal support for the Kremlin’s actions is the obvious reason for the most recent crackdown. Independent media muddle this rosy picture.
On March 13, the Russian authorities blocked access to the popular Internet news sources grani.ru, kasparov.ru, and ej.ru without any specific explanations. By forcing cable providers to terminate their contracts with the Dozhd TV channel, the authorities also deprived Russian viewers of this media option. Finally, the government banned broadcasts of Voice of America in Russia.
The government has considerably increased its pressure on independent media in the last six weeks. In the wake of Russia’s aggression against Ukraine and its annexation of Crimea, the government’s need to launch a propaganda campaign that would provide the illusion of universal support for the Kremlin’s actions is the obvious reason for the most recent crackdown.
The State Duma is actively adopting new legislation and amendments to existing laws that are directed at restricting free speech in the country. It seems like only yesterday that the State Duma’s amendments to the criminal legislation introducing a sentence of five years of imprisonment for “insulting memorable dates of Russian history” were considered the apotheosis of monstrous legislative activity. However, the law adopted on April 22 that designates blogs as media outlets and bloggers as journalists has broken the record of legislative madness.
According to this law, any blog that is visited by more than 3,000 people daily must be registered with Roskomnadzor (the Federal Supervision Agency for Information Technologies and Communications) as a media outlet. Bloggers will be required to post their last names and initials on their blog, as well as their e-mail addresses. In the case that a blogger cannot be identified, Roskomnadzor will be able to demand that the hosting providers submit pertinent data. Such a demand will have to be satisfied no later than three days after the notice is received. Failure to provide information will result in fees of 10,000 to 30,000 rubles for citizens and 50,000 to 300,000 rubles for legal entities.
Authors of blogs with more than 3,000 readers will also be required to “check the authenticity of information before publishing it and to immediately remove any false information; to avoid disseminating information pertaining to citizens’ private lives; [and] comply with the prohibitions and restrictions provided by the laws on elections and referendums.” The requirement that bloggers “avoid disseminating information pertaining to citizens’ private lives” is probably the most significant item on this list. In this way, the government can combat bloggers’ anticorruption efforts by treating any information about Russian officials who have illegal income or have been caught engaging in corrupt practices as information pertaining to these individuals’ private lives.
The law does specify the means the government must use to establish the unreliability of information published on blogs. No judicial procedure is outlined in the case that information is determined to be unreliable, however. If Roskomnadzor chooses to treat some information as false and demands that it be removed, the blogger will have to comply with the demand.
This law is unlikely to be enforced, though. Popular bloggers will hardly be eager to register with Roskomnadzor, and officials in the supervisory agencies are unlikely to be eager to carry out this questionable job. Nevertheless, the regime needs this law in order to be able to “get even” with the opposition in particular instances determined by the General Prosecutor’s Office and the Federal Security Services (FSB).
To return to our earlier point, this law fits neatly into the current trend of giving the government a free hand while imposing new restrictions on citizens. The imposition of administrative responsibility for providing “false information” on speakers at opposition meetings may become the next step in this campaign. Then such restrictions may be imposed on ordinary citizens who discuss topics that the government finds unpleasant in public or at home. An article might be introduced to the Criminal Code establishing responsibility for the deliberate dissemination of false ideas directed at discrediting the current Russian government and social system. This would come as no surprise, because this has already happened once – in the Soviet Union.