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Russian internet freedoms have become increasingly precarious. Now the Duma has passed a bill penalizing fake news and insulting the government online. It still has to pass the upper house before Putin can approve it.
Russia is set to impose tough new penalties for deliberately distributing fake news via the internet.
Although established TV, radio and print outlets are already subject to penalties for spreading false reports under the watchful eye of Russian media authority Roskomnadzor new legislation will target online media and private individuals.
But critics fear the amendment, passed Wednesday by Russia's lower house, the Duma, could also be used to suppress undesirable content.
The new legislation will also open up the possibility of prosecuting online operators and private individuals for disparaging or insulting government agencies and other state authorities.
Who decides what's 'fake'?
Offenders will be given a short window to delete controversial material, but failing that, violators could be fined or have their internet pages taken down. With the average citizen earning the equivalent of €6,300 ($7,100) a year, the maximum penalty of €5,000 for individuals has some heft. Online media operators could face fines of up to €20,000.
The first draft of the bill stipulated much smaller fines, but lawmaker Anatolij Vybory of the United Russia party told DW that they would not be enough of a deterrent.
Citing the 2018 Siberian Kemerovo shopping center fire that killed at least 64, although much higher numbers were rumored, Vybory said the distributors of that fake news would not be deterred by a fine of 1,000 to 2,000 rubles (€13-27, $15 to 30).
Other Russian MPs claim that the changes are simply about public safety, not stifling opinion. "Fake news," they say, is unverified information presented as fact, information that could threaten lives, public order and other parts of daily life.
But while these lawmakers are the ones to lay down the new penalties, they won't be who decide what is "true" and "false."
Rise in self-censorship
The law also seems aimed at unsettling critics of the government.
"The powerful are taking action against information they perceive as a threat," according to political scientist Iliya Grashchenkov, who teaches at the Russian University of Humanities.
He doesn't expect the law to result in a new crackdown on people posting things on Facebook deemed false by the Kremlin.
He does not expect massive repression as a result of the law if someone posts "false information" on Facebook from the Kremlin's point of view.
Read more: Lithuania set to ban fake news from Russia
What Grashchenkov does say, however, is that the law will have a cooling effect by indirectly promoting self-censorship.
He also argues the law could further divide Russian society because it could be used to selectively target private individuals, while potentially corrupt civil servants escape criticism out of public fear it could be seen as an insult.
Other online critics agree, adding that the wording of the new law is deliberately vague, giving judges plenty of room to move in any given case. But Russia's judiciary is not independent. In practice, especially in politically charged cases, judges are bound by instructions from above.