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Insulting Putin may now land you in jail under a new Russian law

Russia's President Vladimir Putin delivers an annual address to the Federal Assembly of the Russian Federation, at Moscow's Gostiny Dvor on Feb. 20, 2019 in Moscow. The Federal Assembly of Russia consists of the State Duma of Russia and the Federation Council of Russia. (Mikhail Tereshchenko/TASS/Zuma Press/TNS)

President Vladimir Putin signed laws punishing online media and individuals for spreading “fake news” or material that’s considered insulting to Russian officials.

Prosecutors can now complain about online publications to the state communications watchdog, which has powers to block access to the websites if their owners fail to remove the material promptly. Publications found guilty of spreading “unreliable socially significant information” may face fines of as much as 1.5 million rubles ($23,000).

Individuals also face fines and up to 15 days in jail if they publish material online that expresses “clear disrespect for society, the state, the official state symbols of the Russian Federation, the Constitution of the Russian Federation and bodies exercising state power.”

The measures were attacked during their passage through parliament by the Presidential Human Rights Council, which warned of their potential use as methods of repression against critics of the authorities. Putin signed the legislation after thousands of people protested in Moscow earlier this month against Kremlin plans to establish a “Sovereign internet” that would route online traffic mostly through domestic servers and exchanges.

Opponents say the move will enable officials to cut off access to services such as Facebook and Google as well as websites critical of the government amid growing public discontent on issues such as rising prices and increases in the pension age.

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Valentina Matviyenko, a key Putin ally who heads the upper house of parliament, laughed off the impact of the new laws last week, however, citing jokes that Russians had made about the legislation.

The powers mean that “if you criticize the authorities, you’ll be prosecuted under the law against insulting officials,” she told an advisory council. “And if you praise the authorities, you’ll be prosecuted under the law against fake news.”

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© 2019 Bloomberg News

Distributed by Tribune Content Agency, LLC.