President Vladimir Putin has signed legislation enabling Russian authorities to block websites and hand out punishment for “fake news” and material deemed insulting to the state or the public.
The two bills that critics see as part of a Kremlin effort to increase control over the Internet and stifle dissent were signed by the president on March 18, according to posts on the government portal for legal information.
The new legislation allows the authorities to block websites or internet accounts that publish what they deem to be “fake news” and penalize those who post material found to be insulting to state officials, state symbols, or Russian society.
The parliament’s upper chamber, the Federation Council, approved the bills on March 13 after the lower chamber, the State Duma, gave final approval to the proposed legislation on March 7.
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 freedom of expression cannot be restricted exclusively due to doubts about whether what is being expressed is true.
The new law empowers 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.
Fines, jail time
The law sets 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 law says publications officially registered with Roskomnadzor, including online media outlets, will 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 will be blocked without warning.
The law also establishes 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 will face bigger fines and can be jailed for up to 15 days.
Roskomnadzor will 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 fail to do so will be blocked, the law says.
In January, after the State Duma approved the bills in their first readings, Russian opposition politician Ilya Yashin said: “These are crazy bills.”
“How can they prohibit people from criticizing the authorities?” he added.