A pair of bills that prohibit spreading fake news and insulting authorities just made it one step closer to becoming law in Russia.
Passed by Russia’s lower house today, one bill would punish people who post disrespectful content about the nation and its officials. Repeated violators of that law could face up to 15 days in jail. The other bill would impose fines on those that spread fake news and require internet service providers to block such content if it is not immediately removed.
According to CNN, the fake news bill targets information that “threatens someone’s life and (or) their health or property, or threatens mass public disorder or danger, or threatens to interfere or disrupt vital infrastructure, transport or social services, credit organizations, or energy, industrial, or communications facilities.” Private citizens who can share such content could be fined up to $6,000.
The bills still need to be passed by Russia’s upper house and signed by President Vladimir Putin. The AP reports that they are expected to be. Russian officials have denied these bills were intended to silence media outlets, but the censorship implications were obvious to some.
“These are crazy bills,” opposition politician Ilya Yashin told Reuters. “How can they prohibit people from criticizing the authorities?”
It’s hardly an abstract threat—a similar bill was passed in Malaysia, and last year 46-year-old Salah Salem Saleh Sulaiman was the first person charged with spreading fake news after posting a YouTube video claiming Malaysian police took almost an hour to respond to the shooting of a Palestinian lecturer. The police claimed they took eight minutes to respond. Sulaiman pleaded guilty and, when he couldn’t pay the fine of a little over $2,500, was sentenced to a month in jail.
Egypt also passed a similar fake news bill last year, which gives the government the power to block or suspend individuals with more than 5,000 followers on social media for sharing misinformation. “That power of interpretation has been a constant powerful legal and executive tool that was used to justify excessive aggressive and exceptional measures to go after journalists,” Sherif Mansour, Middle East and North Africa program coordinator for the Committee to Protect Journalists, told Reuters last year, referring to the way this type of legislation affords President Abdel-Fattah el-Sissi the power to continue silencing journalists.
Disguised as a tool to fight misinformation, Russia’s bills will likely be another cudgel authoritarians can use against dissenters. The absolutist approach to allegedly dangerous information doesn’t suggest progress toward a safer and more factual internet. It suggests a step toward an internet that maintains the authority and public integrity of a few powerful decision-makers.