Just when it seemed Russia was opening up, some newly minted laws hint that the opposite is true, as President Vladimir Putin signs a Bill that criminalizes defamation. While created under the pretense of protecting citizens’ rights, the laws will give the Russian government authority to block websites that are deemed to be defamatory.

Unfortunately, there is the opportunity for abuse when a small number of individuals are given this level of power over censorship.

The new bill had previously been waiting on the signature of Vladimir Putin, Russia’s president. He has now okayed the bill and brought it into effect.

This new defamation bill will also gives judges the ability to impose fines of up to 5 million rubles. This is approximately equivalent to €100,000. While the punishment for defamation in an earlier version of the law included jail time, this was subsequently dropped.

The Committee to Protect Journalists, also known as the CPJ claims the new law is evidence of Russia’s divergence from international norms related to human rights. CPJ is a press freedom watchdog, based out of New York.

As mentioned above, the new Russian bill, which focuses on “defamation” related to the Internet will allow a newly created agency to develop a website blacklist. Websites selected for the list will then be blocked from public access in Russia. This bill is in complete contradiction to claims previously made by the Russian Prime Minister. Russian Prime Minister, Medvedev, previously remarked that Russia was a country which respected the free press. He called an uncensored Internet proof of this claim.

CPJ went on to say, “That Russia will so quickly abandon that standard shows how fragile its respect can be.”

According to the president’s office, the law creates “changes to the Russian Criminal Code and certain Russian statutory acts,” relating to slander; a liability will now be imposed for such activity.

The Russian criminal code will see the addition of a new article, 128.1. According to this article, liability will be imposed on a party that disseminates information which is false and tarnishes the dignity or honor of another party, or causes their reputation to be undermined.

Additionally, Article 298.1 has also been added. This allows a liability to be imposed against a bailiff, investigator, juror, detective, prosecutor or judge who commits an act of slander.

As mentioned above, the penalty may include a fine of up to 5 million rubles. Alternatively, the penalty could also include compulsory work term of up to 480 hours.

Merely accusing someone of committing a grave crime could render an individual guilty.

Watchdogs are  fearful that the new bill will give authorities more power to undermine their opposition, as opposed to actually protecting individuals against defamation.  The ability of the law  to prevent certain websites from going public in Russia could simply be used to prevent the spread of information which stands against the current powers that be.

On July 18, 2012, the federal Council approved the bill that criminalizes defamation in Russia, subsequent to the bill being passed on July 13 by the State Duma.

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