Hey Dimwit . . . Oh Wait This is Russia; I Can’t Say That

By: John Dunham

Online censorship has been taken to a whole new level in Russia. Recently, a Russian citizen was charged a fine of $470 for referring to Vladimir Putin as a “dimwit” on a Russian social media site similar to Facebook.[1] While a brief view of online Russian social media it is evident that many Russians do not have a positive view of Vladimir Putin or the Kremlin, a judge fined a unemployed carpenter for his use of foul language.[2]  While his lawyers argued that he did not use the words, since he used periods instead of the letters the court did not rule in his favor.[3] The regional court ruled that the comment ‘“offends human dignity and social mores and expresses clear disrespect to society and state organs representing government power in the Russian Federation.’”[4] This sparked a slight protest on social media where users used the Russian word for dimwit as a hashtag.[5]

Recently, the “Duma,” the lower house, passed bills that are directed at preempting and controlling online public criticism.[6] The bills, which started in lower house and have moved into the upper house, The Federation Council, are now awaiting to be signed by Vladimir Putin himself.[7] The bills are focused on insulting the government and fake news.[8] One of the bills would subject “private individuals to fines of up to $3,000 or 15 days of administrative arrest for insulting the government online.”[9] Additionally, individuals could face up fines up to $6,000 for positing news that is deemed fake.[10] What is deemed fake news has not been explicitly stated and is up for debate, which creates enormous discretion and arbitrariness in enforcement of the law.[11] These laws will be difficult to enforce with the amount of vulgarities on the web, making those that are enforced seeming randomly chosen and heavily publicized.[12]

            The fake news laws are not only directed at private citizens, but business as well.[13] The Russian lawmakers passed a bill forcing a website to remove ‘“false, publicly important information’” that may incite public disorder.[14] Also, another bill demands that news outlets and internet websites “ remove any information that shows ‘clear disrespect’ to the society, the state or its symbols, the Russian Constitution or the government.”[15]  These websites and internet service providers will be required to remove the insults or disparaging information within one day or be subject to complete block. [16]

            These bills are not the first time Russian has tried to attack the media by limiting the information promoted.[17] Previously, Russia had laws that prohibited “advocating suicide, trying to sell drugs, or expressing . . . ‘extremism.’”[18] In 2018, Russia banned a messaging app known as Telegram because they would not allow the Russian government access to encrypted messages from Russian citizens. [19] The Russian communications watchdog, Roskmnadzor, asked for the hearing one day prior to its scheduling and the hearing only took a total of eighteen minutes.[20] In February, lawmakers proposed creating a web infrastructure that would separate Russia’s internet from the global internet.[21] These laws have been part of long process by Putin to have the Internet censored.[22] Currently, Russia has mostly free access to Western social media sites; however, they are becoming more similar to China in their regulations.[23]  As public disdain for Putin grows it seems more laws banning speech are becoming prevalent.[24]  Many Russians are moving from television, which is controlled by the Kremlin to the Internet  to obtain their news.[25] The transition of news outlets has made Internet censorship a top priority for the Russian Government. [26]These laws have led to self-censorship by some people who believe the governments watchdogs are watching post constantly.[27] This is freighting as people ability to criticize the government provides a checks and balances to evaluate the governments actions.

While the First Amendment of the Constitution protects the citizens in the United States from their speech being regulated it is important to ensure this right is always protected.[28] Current political climate in the United States is one where there are many open criticisms of the president and both parties. The current censorship laws in Russia do not provide its citizens with the same rights.[29] Russia is not the only country that censors its citizens, but it seems that these censorship laws are increasingly infringing on the rights of the citizens and not providing them the same opportunity that other advanced countries are. As more people continue to be connected internationally through social media networks it will be interesting to see how censorship laws all over the world affect individuals.

[1] Andrew Kramer, In Russia, Political Criticism Is a 4-Letter Word (and a $470 Fine), N.Y. Times (Apr. 24, 2019), https://www.nytimes.com/2019/04/24/world/europe/russia-putin-criticism-law.html.

[2] Id.

[3] Id.

[4] Id.

[5] Id.

[6]  Ivan Nechepurenko, Insult the Government? Russians Could Go to Jail Under Proposed Law, N.Y. Times (Mar. 7, 2019), https://www.nytimes.com/2019/03/07/world/europe/russia-internet-freedom-speech.html?module=inline.

[7] Russian Lawmakers Send ‘Fake News’ Bill to Putin for Approval, The Moscow Times (Mar. 13, 2019), https://www.themoscowtimes.com/2019/03/13/russian-lawmakers-send-fake-news-bill-to-putin-for-approval-a64794.

[8] Id.

[9] Nechpurenko, supra note 6.

[10] Id.

[11] Id.

[12] Kramer, supra note 1.

[13] Nechpurenko, supra note 6.

[14] Id.

[15] Id.

[16] Id.

[17] Id.

[18] Kramer, supra note 1.

[19] Neil MacFarquhar, Russian Court Bans Telegram App After 18-Minute Hearing, N.Y. Times (Apr. 13, 2018), https://www.nytimes.com/2018/04/13/world/europe/russia-telegram-encryption.html?module=inline.

[20] Id.

[21] Nechpurenko, supra note 6.

[22] Id.

[23] Kramer, supra note 1.

[24] Nechpurenko, supra note 6.

[25] Id.

[26] Id.

[27] Kramer, supra note 1.

[28] U.S. Const. amend. I.

[29] Nechpurenko, supra note 6.

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