Russia’s lower parliament unanimously passed a law on Friday morning that will criminalize sharing what the Kremlin determines is “fake” information about the country’s armed forces, with punishments ranging from fines of $45,000 to prison terms of up to 15 years.
While the new law is being seen primarily as yet another nail in the coffin of a free press in Russia, the wording of the legislation is so broad that it applies not only to journalists and media outlets, but to any citizen expressing their opinion.
“[This law is] targeting any citizen who speaks the truth,” Olga Lautman, a Kremlin analyst at the Center for European Policy Analysis told VICE News.
And given the fact that the Kremlin has already outlawed the use of the words “invasion” or “war” to describe what is happening in Ukraine, this latest move is designed to further limit the amount of information Russian citizens have about the atrocities Russia is perpetrating in Ukraine.
Within an hour the law was approved by the upper chamber of the parliament, the Federal Council, and it will now be sent to President Vladimir Putin to sign, which could happen as soon as Saturday, the Moscow Times reported.
“Literally by tomorrow, this law will force punishment—and very tough punishment—on those who lied and made statements which discredited our armed forces,” said Vyacheslav Volodin, chairman of the lower house of parliament, which is known as the Duma, according to Reuters.
The law criminalizes knowingly sharing information that “distorts the purpose, role and tasks of the Armed Forces of the Russian Federation, as well as other formations during special military and other operations.” Anyone who shares such information would face the proposed fine and prison sentence, the proposed bill says.
Posting data on Russia’s military casualties not directly provided by the Russian Defense Ministry would also be a violation of the new law.
The Kremlin also provided some examples of what “fake news” it is talking about, such as using old photos of burned-out military equipment of the Ukrainian Armed Forces that have been photoshopped to have markings of the Russian military, the Moscow Times reported.
There is a sliding scale of punishment depending on how seriously the Kremlin feels the “fake news” being shared is. The law says that people who use their position to spread fake information or distribute fake news with falsified evidence could be jailed for between 5 and 10 years.
Calling for people to attend anti-war protests in Russia could see you spending five years in jail, while supporting calls for sanctions against the Kremlin will now carry a penalty of up to three years in a forced labor camp.
“If the fakes lead to serious consequences then imprisonment of up to 15 years threatens,” the Duma said in a statement.
Putin has framed this new law as part of his fight back against what he deems an information war against Russia, perpetrated by Ukraine, and Volodin reinforced this idea on Friday when he said the new law was designed to “ensure citizens receive objective information and to defend citizens and the country from lies spread, first and foremost, by way of information sources that exercise influence from abroad.”
In a note to the new bill, the Kremlin states that the Ukrainian media is using footage of the devastation in the Donbas region from 2014 and 2015 and claiming it is recent footage of Russian military atrocities, in order to “create a global negative image of Russia as a ‘bloody aggressor’ and whip up panic in society.”
But this law is better seen as yet another attempt by Russia’s authoritarian leader to prevent his citizens having access to information he doesn’t want them seeing. Putin has already imposed restrictions on independent media, blocking access to the websites of outlets like the investigative website Medusa. The radio station Ekho Moskvy was also forced off the air.
On Thursday evening, Russia’s final independent broadcaster, Dozhd TV, was forced to shut down.
Initially, Russian journalists bravely fought back against their government’s latest crackdowns, but as the war in Ukraine has intensified, so too has Putin’s crackdown on information inside Russia, and the new “fake” news law will simply add to that censorship.
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