Amendments to the Federal Law of 27 July 2006 No. 149-FZ “On information, information technologies and the protection of information”, under which the publication of fake news and information showing “blatant disrespect for the authorities in an indecent form” can be blocked, entered into force at the end of March 2019. Penalties for these infringements in the form of large fines and even administrative detention for up to 15 days were added to the Code of Administrative Offences at the same time. The author of the law, member of parliament Andrei Klishas, believes that “these laws protect human rights”. However, both experts and the public are already saying that these amendments constitute censorship, and rightly so.
The new provisions outlaw so-called “fake news”, namely the spread of “information of public interest which is known to be unreliable, is disguised as accurate information and poses a risk of harm to the life and/or health of citizens or property, a risk of mass disruption of public order and/or public safety, or a risk of impeding or halting the functioning of critical, transport or social infrastructures, lending institutions, or power generation, industrial or communications facilities”.
And in cases where such fake news has not only posed a risk of but also caused all of these negative consequences, or where someone has been imprudent enough to commit a repeat offence, the fines are considerably higher: up to 400,000 roubles (approx. $6000) for individuals, and up to 1.5 million roubles (approx. $23,000) for corporations. These appear to be the biggest fines in the Code of Administrative Offences in relation to the spreading of information. Even in the Criminal Code, the biggest fine is only 40,000 roubles (approx. $600) for insulting a representative of the authorities (Article 319). Larger amounts of compensation are often awarded in civil claims concerning defamation (average sums of $584 for individuals and $3,927 for mass media), but now the price of criticising the authorities has multiplied significantly.
Expert assessments and conjecture may very well be regarded as “information of public interest which is known to be unreliable and is disguised as accurate information”. It is not easy to check reliability, especially in a short space of time, but blocking a website on the grounds that it carries fake news which looks like “reliable information” will now be very easy. Furthermore, online media outlets which are officially registered as media outlets will at least be notified before news is blocked, giving them the chance to remove it themselves, whereas similar publications on any other websites will be blocked extra-judicially by order of the Prosecutor-General (i.e. without warning).
Journalistic investigations into corruption and any online discussions (not just on media websites, also simply on social networks) which give accounts of events of public interest that have not yet been confirmed at the time of publication can now fall under the scope of the conditional “fake news laws”.