(Apr. 11, 2019) On March 18, 2019, Russian president Vladimir Putin signed two laws passed by the Russian parliament aimed at countering the creation and dissemination of fake news. (Federal Law on Amending Article 15-3 of the Federal Law on Information, Information Technologies and Protection of Information, Mar. 18, 2019, Pravo legal media website (in Russian); Federal Law on Amending the Code of Administrative Violations, Mar. 18, 2019, Pravo legal media website (in Russian).) The Laws establish fines for knowingly spreading fake news and procedures for internet service providers to block access to websites disseminating fake news.
The Law on Amending Article 15-3 in particular defines fake news as “socially significant false information distributed under the guise of truthful messages if they create a threat that endangers people’s lives, health, or property; create possibilities for mass violations of public order or public security; or possibly hinder the work of transportation and social infrastructure, credit institutions, lines of communications, industry, and energy enterprises.” (Federal Law on Amending Article 15-3, para. 1 (all translations by author).)
This Law further states that Roskomnadzor, the Kremlin’s media watchdog and censorship agency, is to inform the editorial body of an online publication of fake news that must be removed from its website. (This Is How Russian Internet Censorship Works, MEDUZA (Aug. 13, 2015); Law on Amending Article 15-3, para. 11.) Upon receipt of a notice from Roskomnadzor, the editorial body must immediately take steps to remove such information and, if it fails to do so, Roskomnadzor must take steps to limit access to the online publication. In such cases the internet service provider must also immediately block access to the sites where the fake news is published. (Law on Amending Article 15-3, para. 11, 12, 13, 14.) These provisions do not apply to information disseminated through a news aggregator. (Id. para. 15.)
The Law on Amending the Code of Administrative Violations prescribes fines for spreading fake news. Fines range from 30,000 to 500,000 rubles (about US$458 to US$7,600) depending on the legal and official status of the offender (i.e., whether the offender is a physical person, legal person, or official). (Id. paras. 9, 10.) Stricter fines are envisaged if dissemination of fake information has caused “the death of a person or inflicted harm to human health and (or) property[;] massive disturbance to public order and (or) public safety[; or] hindrance of the work of life-support facilities, transportation and social infrastructure, credit institutions, lines of communications, [or] energy or industrial enterprises.” (Id.) In such cases the prescribed fines range from 300,000 rubles to 1.5 million rubles (about US$4,580 to US$22,900). (Id. para. 11.)
Reactions to the Laws
The laws were signed by the president notwithstanding wide criticism from various government agencies and ministries, including the Ministry of Justice, Roskomnadzor, the Ministry of Communication, and the Office of the Prosecutor General. (General Prosecutor’s Office Did Not Support Bills on Insulting Authorities and Fake News, VEDOMOSTI (Jan. 14, 2018) (in Russian).) As noted by the representative of the Office of the Prosecutor General, because the wording of the bills is so “technical in nature,” determining whether news information was trustworthy would require extremely time-consuming linguistic examination. Additionally, she noted that the bills did not specify sufficient criteria for extrajudicial blocking of sites. In her opinion, this might entail “an unreasonable restriction of the constitutional rights of citizens to free dissemination of information.” (Id.)
The passage of the Laws was met with criticism from various nongovernmental organizations as well. For example, members of the Free Speech Association, PEN-Moscow Association, and St. Petersburg PEN Club issued an open letter expressing the opinion that the newly passed laws restrict constitutional freedom of free speech and “establish the right of an official, at his own discretion, without investigation and trial, by his sole decision, to forbid the dissemination of any information” and to immediately and indefinitely block any media resources on the internet. (Council of Federation Approves Anti-Fake News Law and Law Prohibiting Disrespectful Treatment of Authorities, NEWSRU.COM (Mar. 13, 2019) (in Russian).)
However, the spokesperson for the President of the Russian Federation expressed the opinion that a similar regulatory framework exists in many European countries and that, on the basis of past experience, the reservations about the laws being far-reaching in their scope are not justified. (Id.)