In the latest attempt to turn Russia inward on itself the country’s national parliament, the State Duma, approved a controversial law that allows courts to jail people for online “disrespect” of government or state officials, including the president, Vladimir Putin.
The law is reminiscent of Soviet-era legislation that was used to target political dissidents and anti-Communist activists fines of up to €1,400 for “indecent” online posts that demonstrate a “blatant disrespect for society, the country, Russia’s official state symbols, the constitution, or the authorities”.
A second bill was also attached to the legislation that prohibits the sharing of “false information” that goes against what the state media and the Kremlin approve, which the new rules states is used to spread disinformation for the sole purpose of weakening the authority of the Russian state.
Journalists, human rights campaigners and even government ministers have voiced their opposition with several pro-democracy supporters saying the legislation would “make journalists fearful of speaking and writing”.
Both laws were authored by Andrey Klishas, a Duma deputy from Putin’s ruling United Russia party. Uncharacteristically for Russia’s rubberstamp legislature, Klishas was publicly criticised by some of his fellow Duma members and government officials.
Putin is expected to sign the bills into law once they have received approval from Russia’s upper house, the Federation Council. The body will consider both bills on March 13.
The new legislation is the most significant crackdown of free speech in Russia since early in Putin’s rule, when in January 2000 he ordered his security services to shut down the then-independent and critical media after he was allegedly personally offended by the pointed criticism directed at Moscow’s conduct during the Second Chechen War and the number of political satire shows that aired on Russian television at the time which made Putin the subject of many of their jokes.
The initial crackdown more than 19 years ago is considered by most both in Russia and by those who have worked in the country as when the brief period following the collapse of the Soviet Union, when the Russian Federation had a free and independent media, came to an end.
Putin’s decision to further hinder the flow of critical information inside of the country comes just as an opinion poll by Russia’s Research Center, VTsIOM, released data that showed the Russian public’s trust in Putin had fallen to just 32%, its lowest level since 2006.