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Russia enacts ‘fake news’ law with one eye on curbing independent reportage of Ukraine invasion

But this isn’t the first time that Russia has criminalised the peddling of fake news by online media.

Russia has passed a law that carries a punishment of up to 15 years for spreading fake news about the Russian military, according to a report by The Moscow Times. The provision for criminal liability was adopted unanimously by the State Duma, as per the state-news agency, TASS.

The amendment will lead to an addition of the provision in the Criminal Code (CC) of the Russian Federation under Article 207.3, said TASS. The agency added that if the spreading of fake information results in “serious consequences”, the term of imprisonment will be between 10 to 15 years.

“Article (207.3) provides imprisonment of up to three years or a fine of up to 1.5 million rubles,” read the report, adding that the punishment for people who use their official position or commit such actions for “mercenary motives” will range from five to 10 years or a fine of up to 5 million rubles.

The move comes on the heels of Russia’s invasion of Ukraine which has led to global condemnation of Russia. The reportage emerging out of the war reveals that the Russian military has inflicted civilian casualties in thousands, which has resulted in accusations of war crimes.

The government has intensified its ongoing suppression of liberal media since the start of the invasion, said The Moscow Times. It added that several Russian news outlets, including Dozhd, The Village and Znek.com, have had to shutter their operations due to new state restrictions.

The law is being seen as an attempt to stop independent reporting of the invasion. It could also serve as a blueprint for other authoritarian regimes who want to rein in independent organisations in their territories.

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What does the law dictate?

The law forbids public calls to prevent the use of the Russian armed forces and carries the following fines in absence of criminal acts as laid down by the news agency:

  • Russian citizens will have to cough up 30,000 to 50,000 rubles,
  • State officials will have to shell out 100,000 to 200,000 rubles,
  • Legal entities will pay 300,000 to 500,000 rubles.

The agency added that if public calls for discrediting the army are “accompanied by calls for illegal actions and pose a threat of harm to the life and (or) health of citizens and public safety” then the following fines will be in place:

  • Citizens: 50,000 to 100,000 rubles,
  • Officials: 200,000 to 300,000 rubles,
  • Legal Entities: 500,000 to 1,000,000 rubles.

The explanatory note to the bill suggests that the Ukrainian media is using footage of the devastation in the Donbas region from 2014-2015 and passing it off as crimes perpetrated by the Russian military in order to “create a global negative image of Russia as a ‘bloody aggressor’ and whip up panic in society,” revealed The Moscow Times.

Punishment over calls for foreign sanctions

The Russian parliament has also criminalised calls for the imposition of foreign sanctions against Russia. A new article titled “calls for the introduction of restrictive measures against the Russian Federation, citizens of the Russian Federation or Russian legal entities” will be added to the Criminal Code, said TASS.

It punishes calls urging a foreign state, state association, state or interstate institution of “restrictive measures” to either impose or extend political or economic sanctions against Russia.

The punishment will carry a fine of up to 500,000 rubles or:

  • The amount of the convict’s salary or other income for a period of up to three years;
  • Restriction of liberty, forced labour for up to three years, and arrest for up to six months;
  • Imprisonment for up to three years with a possible fine of up to 200,000 rubles or the amount of the convict’s salary for a period of up to one year.

How has the world reacted to the law?

The law has not gone down well with major news outlets across the world. Several news media said they were suspending operations in Russia to protect their journalists, reported Reuters. Some of the organisations include Britain’s BBC, Canada’s CBC, Bloomberg News, CNN, ABC News, and CBS News, the report added.

The security of staffers is paramount and BBC is not prepared to “expose them to the risk of criminal prosecution simply for doing their jobs”, said BBC Director-General Tim Davie in a statement.

Russia’s own Novaya Gazeta newspaper was forced to remove material on Russia’s military actions in Ukraine from its website, reported Al Jazeera. The newspaper’s editor, Dmitry Muratov, was a co-winner of the Nobel Peace Prize last year.

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TikTok bears the brunt

TikTok had to suspend live streaming and new content to its video service in response to Russia’s new ‘fake news’ law, the company said in a tweet. The company took the decision in order to maintain the safety of employees and users that might use the app to “provide a source of relief and human connection during a time of war when people are facing immense tragedy and isolation,” the tweet added.

The irony of this law seems to be lost on the Russian government as Meta revealed that it busted an operation spreading fake news about Ukrainians that was allegedly being run by people in Russia and Ukraine. The company said that the disinformation network comprised about 40 accounts, pages and groups on Facebook and Instagram, as per a blog by Meta.

Russia has enacted such laws before

The law is not the first of its kind in Russia, The Hindu said in its report. Russian Deputy Vasily Piskarev, the chairman of the Duma Defence Committee, informed that the new articles are supplements to articles 207.1 and 207.2 which were drafted in 2020 and impose grave liability on parties who knowingly spread publicly significant fake news about the Coronavirus, the website added.

Moreover, Russia had introduced a law criminalising peddling of “fake news” that “disrespects” the government, its institutions, state symbols and the constitution, by individuals and online media in 2019, The Hindu stated.

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I cover several beats such as Crypto, Telecom, and OTT at MediaNama. I can be found loitering at my local theatre when I am off work consuming movies by the dozen.

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