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Russia eyes stricter censorship

Alexandra Ivanova | Sergey Dik
March 11, 2023

Russian lawmakers want to crack down harder on individuals who criticize Russian forces fighting against Ukraine. How will these legal changes impact Russia's society?

Wagner's St Petersburg office
Criticizing the mercenary Wagner Group could become a criminal offenseImage: Igor Russak/REUTERS

Russia wants to punish anyone found "discrediting" a Russian individual participating in the war against Ukraine, and hand down harsher sentences for "disseminating falsehoods." The legislative amendment, if adopted, would now also consider volunteers and individuals supporting the Russian army as participants in the war. Until now, legislation has been restricted to punishing the  "discrediting" or "dissemination of falsehoods" regarding members of the military

Corresponding laws were passed in 2022, after the start of Russia's all-out war against Ukraine, which the Kremlin and Russian media describe as a "special military operation."

Increased prison sentences 

Amending the laws will raise prison sentences from three to five years, and from five to seven years in cases of "repeated discrediting." The maximum penalties, however, remain unchanged: 15 years in prison or a fine of up to five million rubles ($66,000 or €61,500).

The changes to the code of administrative offences and the Russian criminal code, drafted by a group of State Duma deputies led by Chairman Vyacheslav Volodin, were adopted by Russian lawmakers in their second reading on March 2. The third reading will follow on March 14.

State Duma Chairman Vyacheslav Volodin speaking at a podium
State Duma Chairman Vyacheslav Volodin was asked to draft the legislative amendmentsImage: Anton Novoderezhkin/ITAR-TASS/IMAGO

What would the amendments entail?

The Russian State Duma website states that, under the amendments to the Russian criminal code, liability for public actions aimed at "discrediting" the Russian armed forces will be extended to volunteer associations, organizations, or individuals assisting in the performance of tasks imposed on the armed forces.

In late January, Russian media reported that Yevgeny Prigozhin, founder of the Wagner mercenary organization, had asked Duma Chairman Vyacheslav Volodin to add an article to the Russian criminal code stipulating penalties for "discrediting" former convicts recruited to fight against Ukraine.

According to Russian daily Kommersant, Prigozhin proposed outlawing criticism of anyone participating in the so-called "special military operation," and making it illegal to publish details about crimes previously committed by fighters. Prigozhin reportedly proposed up to five-year jail terms for individuals criticizing the Wagner organization.

Yevgeny Prigozhin, founder of the Wagner Group,  in a black suit with a blue tie
Yevgeny Prigozhin reportedly proposed legislation to punish criticism of his Wagner Group with up to five years imprisonmentImage: Mikhail Metzel/TASS/IMAGO

Maksim Olenitshev, a lawyer with the Russian human rights group Perviy Otdel (First Department) says the legal status of the Wagner group remains unclear. "No law in Russia allows the establishment of private paramilitary formations," said Olenitshev. "Strictly speaking, only those who perform military service and have signed a contract with the army can be considered volunteers. It is not unlikely law enforcement will employ a very broad interpretation, meaning that anyone who helps the Russian armed forces will now be considered a volunteer."

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St. Petersburg lawyer Viktor Drozdov told DW the law mentions both "volunteer units" and the "armed forces of the Russian Federation." This, in his view, creates ambiguity over how to prosecute mercenaries, which is stipulated in Article 359 of the Russian criminal code.

Is this an act of desperation?

Drozdov considers Duma Chairman Volodin's initiative and that of his colleagues to be a "preemptive, intimidating political cry." He added that such behavior was "a sign of powerlessness. Stricter penalties for the free dissemination of opinions and assessments of the so-called 'special military operation' can only point to one thing: the monopoly claimed by the state on the dissemination of information is suffering yet another historical setback."

Maksim Olenitshev agrees. "The draft laws are intended to further tighten military censorship, even though no martial law has been imposed in Russia," said the lawyer. "The amendments have nothing to do with human rights and justice. Instead, they grossly violate Russia's obligations under Article 19 of the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights to respect the right to freedom of expression."

What is true, what is false?

On his Telegram channel, Russian lawyer and human rights activist Pavel Chikov wrote that he, too, had "many questions" about the legal changes. "I suspect that negative remarks about the Wagner Group may now be grounds for criminal prosecution," he said. "Until now, most police officers and courts have considered statements against the war to be discrediting. Statements such as 'No to war' are seen as a petty offense. But criticizing Yevgeny Prigozhin can mean facing criminal prosecution. That's what this planned legislation would allow," he explained.

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According to Chikov, reports about the Wagner Group which "run counter to official information claiming the troops are poorly supplied" may now be classified as "fake." At the same time, he said it was unclear how to distinguish true from false information concerning volunteer units. "If the representative of the Russian Ministry of Defense Igor Konashenkov continues to be considered the arbiter of truth, as is noted in all criminal cases regarding 'fake news' about the military, then statements by members of the Wagner Group concerning insufficient shells may suddenly also count as fake news," said Chikov.

This article was translated from German.