On June 30, president Vladimir Putin signed a law introducing several legislative amendments directed at toughening Russia’s laws on fighting extremism. These include imprisonment for funding extremist activities and calling for extremism via the Internet. Analyst Alexander Podrabinek argues that this law is hardly new, and that its goal is to instill nervousness in the public.
The recent changes to Russia’s anti-extremism laws are rather unimpressive, the most serious among them being a new article on liability for financing extremist activity. A similar article concerning terrorist activity already exists. “Terrorism,” however, is something rare and exotic, whereas “extremism” is everywhere, since in today’s Russia, any displeasure with the authorities is equated to extremism—especially if it is publicly expressed.
For example, Grani.ru has been declared an extremist website. There were no court proceedings—officials from Roskomnadzor (the Federal Supervision Agency for Information Technologies and Communications) simply decided that the website was an extremist one, and ordered Russian Internet providers to block access to the online publication. Advertising opportunities for Grani.ru obviously collapsed, and its revenues decreased considerably. Sympathetic readers began sending money to support the website: some sent a hundred rubles, others a thousand; some of them did it under their own names, others anonymously. Now, according to the new article 282-3 of the Russian Criminal Code, such donations are a legally defined crime. By contributing one hundred rubles, you are financing an extremist organization! Of course, from a legal standpoint, this conclusion is rather questionable, but it is good enough for Russia’s politically guided “Basmanny justice.”
Lawmakers made adjustments to other articles as well. People can now be sentenced to up to five years of imprisonment for inciting extremist activity through the Internet. Previously, such actions were punishable by up to four years. Previously, “incitement of hatred” (under article 282, part 1 of the Criminal Code) was punishable by up to four years in prison; this has now been raised to eight years.
Perhaps the old proverb is right, and the devil is not so black as he is painted. The fact is that, with the catastrophically bad state of the present justice system, any innocent person in Russia can easily be jailed. The authorities are still fearful of an unexpected public reaction or uprising—which is why they continue to terrorize society, instilling fear over an uttered word and threatening punishment for a modest financial contribution or public statement. Intimidating society means defeating it. After all, fear is a much more effective means of suppressing personality than police, courts, or prisons.
Terrorizing society through draconian laws is one of the main manifestations of the government’s terrorist activity. The constant passage of prohibitive laws has a demoralizing effect. Given the legal impotence of Russian citizens, their mistrust of the national justice system, and public indifference toward defending human rights, the news of the passage of yet another prohibitive law can instill fear and panic in society. This, indeed, is the goal of the State Duma’s legislative activities.
The new laws act preventively by intimidating bloggers, their readers, and even people who are only marginally involved with the Internet. As a result, some people feel hopeless; others decide to distance themselves from the Internet; and still others start thinking about emigrating.
The latest package of laws, signed by President Putin on June 30, serves as a good example. It is worth noting that it was Putin himself who, as prime minister of Russia, introduced this package to the Duma in August 2011. The laws are indeed aimed at further curtailing the freedom of the Internet, but their consequences are exaggerated by hearsay. The online news media feature headlines of this sort: Duma Adopts Law on Prison Terms for Online Calls to Extremism: Report or Like can be Reason for Prosecution; Russians will be Jailed for Likes and Reposts; Repost or Like can get you up to 5 Years in Prison in Russia; and other such phrases.
In fact, the new amendments have no mention of “likes” or reposts. It is unclear what led to such conclusions. Indeed, apart from financial support for extremism, there is nothing substantively new in these amendments—the only change is the increased criminal liability for using the Internet for extremist ends. This is reflected in the punishment: the number of years in prison and large fines. Yet it has become commonplace to state that people will be jailed for “likes” and reposts under the new law—this is being discussed as an established fact. Few people actually read the laws themselves, let alone analyze them. Everyone simply believes what is being said in the media by commentators and journalists. The reason for this confusion lies not only in the traffic that such sensationalism attracts to articles and reports. Part of the reason is that these inflated threats act preventively by intimidating bloggers, their readers, and even people who are only marginally involved with the Internet. As a result, some people feel hopeless; others decide to distance themselves from the Internet; and still others start thinking about emigrating.
The Russian government’s methods of instilling nervousness in the public are diverse. An endless flow of stupid and cruel laws, accompanied by pessimistic predictions and scaremongering, play an important role in the government’s war on the thinking part of society.