How Russia’s new censorship laws are being used to stifle free expression
By Roman Kiselyov, EHRAC Chevening Scholar.
The recent article by Galina Arapova, Head of the Mass Media Defence Centre, summarises the newly introduced Russian law on fake news and disrespect for the authorities and highlights its potential misuse to stifle legitimate public debate and criticism.
The present article reviews three months of law-enforcement activities since the law was enacted on 29 March 2019. An analysis of this data confirms that human rights defenders’ fears about possible abuses of these laws have been borne out in practice.
The very first court decision on disrespect of the authorities arrived on 22 April 2019 from the small regional city of Chudovo in Novgorod Oblast. It immediately sparked a scandal. 34 year old Yuri Kartyzhev, commenting on the latest developments in Russian politics, wrote on his Vkontakte (Russian social media network) page that “Putin is a legendary asshole” (“Путин – сказочный долбоёб”), accompanied by a photograph of the Russian President. Kartyzhev was prosecuted by Chudovsky District Court for disrespect of authorities under Article 20.1 of the Code of Administrative Offences. The Regional Court determined that “on 31 March 2019 Mr Kartyzhev posted on the Internet in open access two records with information in an indecent form that offends human dignity and public morality and expresses obvious disrespect for society, the state, and the bodies exercising state power in the Russian Federation”. As a result he was fined 30,000 roubles (€420) – the minimum penalty allowed by Part 3 of Article 20.1 of the Code of Administrative Offences. The very first application of the new law therefore underlined the obvious ridiculousness of the newly imposed limitations on the fundamental right to free speech. Subsequent practice only adds validity to this assessment.
As an act of provocative defiance, many internet users participated in an online flash-mob publishing different variations of the phrase “Putin is a legendary asshole”. Unsurprisingly, some participants were also punished for these publications. Yury Shadrin from Vologda Oblast gave his own assessment of the presidency of Mr Putin, agreeing with Mr Karyzhov but also kindly correcting him that “Putin is a real asshole, not a legendary one” (“Путин долбоёб реальный, а не сказочный”). He was also fined 30,000 roubles. Yury believes that his prosecution was in retaliation for his civil activities. He was one of the organisers of the campaign against raising the retirement age in his native village of Verkhovazhe.
In some other cases, the charges became more sophisticated because the facts did not involve making actual statements but instead publishing statements which had already been made by others. For example, Leonid Volkov, the right-hand man of Russian opposition leader Alexey Navalny, was charged with disrespect for the authorities for tweeting Yury Kartyzhev’s judgment finding him guilty of disrespect for the authorities, including the offending phrase: “Putin is a legendary asshole”. In his case, the initial charges were dropped following public outcry, but in other cases people have not been protected by publicity.
In total, half of the known cases on disrespecting the authorities involve insults to the President. For instance, the phrase “Putin – khuilo” (“Путин – хуйло”, in English – “Putin is a dickhead”), which gained fame in connection with the Russia-Ukraine conflict, has unsurprisingly been the subject of three cases from Smolenks, Izobilniy and Abakan. Sergey Komandirov from Smolensk and Ivan Pahno from Izobilniy were fined 30,000 roubles, while in the case of Vyacheslav Shoyev from Abakan, the judge returned administrative materials to the police for them to eliminate (unspecified) deficiencies. Ilya Putevskiy, a disabled person from Ossinniki in Kemerovo Oblast, was fined for a similar insult to the President but in the form of the phrase “Putin is a cowardly bitch” (“Путин – сука трусливая”).
It is interesting to note that all of the cases on disrespect of the authorities come from the regions, not from the major capitals such as Moscow, St. Petersburg or Ekaterinburg. In this regard, Arkhangelsk Oblast has become a record breaker, from which at least 5 known cases on disrespect for authorities have originated. Agora, an international human rights group, has stated that this seems to be in retaliation to people supporting massive protests in Shiyes against the proposed giant landfill site. The first to be fined in the Arkhangelsk region was, ironically, a namesake of the famous Russian poet, Alexander Pushkin. On the official Vkontakte page of the public movement “Pomorie is not a cesspool”, he commented on the detention and fines of activists; “Judges, are you fucking kidding?” (“Судьи, вы чё, охуели?”). Another woman, 54-year-old janitor Elena Makarova, commented under the same post: “Were they totally out of their minds?” (“Они совсем оборзели?”) Makarova recalled the repressions of 1937, and posed the question: “Is there not a single decent policeman or judge left?”. She now awaits trial.
Similarly, a local saleswoman and civil activist from Kotlas named Svetlana Baksheyeva was fined 30,000 roubles for commenting on a YouTube video in which the acting governor Igor Orlov labelled activists protesting against the dump “worthless people” (“шелупонь”). Subsequently, a further case against Svetlana was initiated. The last victim of the law in Arkhangelsk Oblast is an electrician named Dmitry Popperyok. The materials of the case against him consists of screenshots of his Vkontakte comments with regard to the activities of both the Governor and the President. One of them stated that Putin and Medvedev constitute a mafia (“Путинско-медведевская мафия”). The law is not only applied to prosecuting “disrespect” against certain individuals like the President or a Governor. There are also cases when a supposed “insult” was aimed at an undefined group of persons. This means that anonymous government officials are effectively protected by the law. For instance, a janitor from Motyigino in Central Siberia, M. Yepifanova, was fined 30,000 roubles for a comment in the Russian social network “Odnoklassniki” for emotionally criticising the work of bailiffs.
But the most bizarre example so far of the way that the law is being applied comes from the city of Bryansk on the border with Belarus. Young student Alyona Chervyakova published a video on her Instagram page showing her dancing reggaeton (a music genre influenced hip-hop, Latin American and Caribbean music) on top of the “Mound of Immortality” in Bryansk Central Park – the most beautiful public space in the city. The police officer who instigated the case did not like the fact that the dance took place on top of the memorial dedicated to the war dead. An excerpt from the materials of the case states:
“According to the explanations of Chervyakova A.I. … Her hobbies are dancing. On the morning of April 28, 2019, she had a desire to make a beautiful video in which she would dance. She chose a place that is located on the Mound of Immortality in the Central Park of the 1000th anniversary of the city of Bryansk with her friend, whom she refuses to name, with whom she had previously made an appointment. She and her friend climbed the Mound of Immortality, where she began to dance reggaeton, while her friend filmed everything that happened on her mobile phone. After that they left the Central Park.”
The next day Alyona posted the video on her Instagram feed. She claimed that she did not intend to insult the memory of those who participated in World War II, but was aiming to record a video with a beautiful view in the background. On 29 May 2019, the Sovetskiy District Court ruled that the dance:
“…is expressed in an indecent form that insults human dignity and public morality and forms a clear disrespect for society, while the monument ‘Mound of Immortality’ is an object of cultural heritage of regional significance.”
This absurd legal examination of decency and morality of dance is reminiscent of an old Soviet instruction of 1929: “It is hereby clarified that in each individual case the issue of the permission of dances should be coordinated with Gublit (Regional Directorate) and local political education authorities”. It is interesting to note that in ECtHR practice there is also one pertinent case from Azerbaijan, where a court considered the “Harlem shake” dance a grave violation of public order and an act of hooliganism.
At the time of writing, there were at least 19 known cases in which Part 3 of Article 20.1 of the Code of Administrative Offences has been applied. Two administrative cases were terminated as unsubstantiated; one administrative case was terminated by the police itself; in one case, administrative materials were returned by a judge to the police; in 14 other cases people were found guilty and fined.
Even leaving aside the obvious question of the legitimacy of these prosecutions, and their attack on fundamental freedoms and liberties, the disproportionality of the punishments imposed is rather striking. Bryansk, Kotlas, Chudovo, and Motyugino, in which prosecutions have taken place, are all regions with a low level of economic prosperity. The average income in 2018 amounted to 32,635 roubles per month. Therefore, the minimum penalty under the new law on disrespect for authority de facto constitutes at least the monthly salary of a regular Russian citizen. In the cases presented above, the effect of the individual fines imposed is even more severe, constituting more than the monthly income of a skilled worker (e.g. an electrician in Kotlas earns around 24,000 roubles per month).
In order to fully understand the importance that Russia attaches to the fight against expression of ‘disrespect’ against its officials, it is worth comparing penalties under the article on disrespect (Part 3 of Article 20.1) with other administrative offences relating to public order and public safety. For example, on 3 June 2019, people in Moscow attacked the election banners of an independent political candidate and poured excrement on the banner and over campaign team members. They were later convicted of hooliganism under Part 1 of Article 20.1, and fined 1,000 roubles, the maximum penalty allowed under this provision (not counting administrative arrest of up to 15 days).That case concerned a violent attack on people’s physical and moral integrity aiming to discourage opposition activists from participating in the election. Viewed from the point of view of the severity of the punishment alone, it seems that a comment on the internet criticising the government is seen to constitute a far greater threat to public order and society in the eyes of lawmakers.
Different types of offences against public order and their respective punishments
|20.1 part 3||Disrespect to authorities||30,000 to 100,000 roubles|
|20.1 part 4||Repeated disrespect to authorities||100,000 to 200,000 roubles or up to 15 days of administrative arrest|
|20.1 part 5||Repeated disrespect to authorities (punished more than 2 times)||200,000 to 300,000 roubles or 15 to 30 days of administrative arrest|
|20.1 part 1||Hooliganism||500 to 1,000 roubles or up to 15 days of administrative arrest|
|20.1 part 2||Hooliganism, associated with disobedience to the lawful demand of a police officer||1,000 to 2,000 roubles or up to 15 days of administrative arrest|
|20.3.1||Arousal of hatred or enmity, as well as the humiliation of human dignity||10,000 to 20,000 roubles or up to 15 days of administrative arrest|
|12.24 part 1||Violation of traffic laws, resulting in light or moderate damage to the health of the victim||2,500 to 5,000 roubles or deprivation of driving licence|
|20.13||Shooting weapons in designated areas in violation of established rules or in areas not designated for this||3,000 to 5,000 roubles with or without seizure of weapons|
|20.3 part 1||Propaganda or public demonstration of Nazi paraphernalia or symbols, or paraphernalia or symbols of extremist organizations||1,000 to 2,000 roubles with confiscation of an object|
Even though the initial purpose of the law is clear – to limit free speech and discourage people from publicly expressing discontent with the Government – it seems that the Government itself did not expect that the law would be applied so arbitrarily or be used as an open tool of political persecution. On 20 June 2019, during the annual call-in show “Direct line with Vladimir Putin” (“Прямая линия с Владимиром Путиным”), President Putin, answering a question put to him by a caller, commented that “[the law] is aimed at aimed at preventing insults directed at the symbols of the state – so that no one allows himself to sneer at the flag or emblem … no one has the right to abuse this norm in order to limit people in their right to criticise the authorities of any level.” A week later, on 27 June 2019, unofficial news started to circulate that the Kremlin had given new instructions to the police to stop fining people for criticism, and especially when the criticism in question relates to the President, Federal Assembly, Government, governors, mayors and other state agents. On 2 July 2019, the Kremlin published a set of instructions to governmental bodies including an instruction to the Prosecutor General’s Office together with Roskomnadzor (the body responsible for internet monitoring and blocking of unlawful content) and the Ministry of Interior to analyse existing law enforcement practice of initiating cases under Parts 3-5 of Article 20.1 of the Code of Administrative Offences, and if necessary, take measures to prevent unreasonable administrative liability and/or restriction of access to information resources. The deadline to fulfil the instruction is 1 November 2019.
Whether these steps will change anything or not, only time will tell. But one thing is certain: the field of free speech and the understanding of “permissible criticism” in Russia is actively shrinking. In general the authorities’ tactics for fighting “dissent” have changed, putting an emphasis on fines instead of imprisonment. Reforms in 2018 decriminalised Article 282 of the Criminal Code on extremism, which had formerly been actively used to criminally prosecute and imprison people for publications on social networks, and replaced it with an administrative offence with substantial fines, subject to criminal liability for repeat offenders. A similar change has happened with Russian practice on suppressing public assemblies and public authorities tend to limit punishments with fines both for participation in and calls for assemblies, which are extensively multiplied in cases of repeated offences with a potential criminal liability. As a result of all these legislative novelties, it appears that fines are threatening nearly every step of public activity now and it is a new trend of the season.
 Parts 3, 4, 5, Article 20.1 of the Code of Administrative Offences introduced by the Federal law of 18 March 2019 No. 30-FZ “On Amendments to the Federal Law “On Information, Information Technologies and Information Protection”.
 Дело Юрия Картыжева (Постановление Чудовского районного суда города Чудова от 22 апреля 2019 года по делу № 5-59/2019);
 Суетнов А. Тур вокруг цензуры. Недальняя история // Журналистика и медиарынок : журнал. — 2006. — № 9.
 Дело Вячеслава Шоева (Постановление Абаканского городского суда Республики Хакасия от 26 июня 2019 года по делу № 5-802/2019);
Дело Дмитрия Попперека (Постановление Котласского городского суда Архангельской области от 26 июня 2019 года по делу № 5-230/2019);
Дело Александра Пушкина (Постановление Октябрьского районного суда города Архангельска от 8 июля 2019 года по делу № 5-375/2019)
 Дело Александра Курчевского (https://www.bel.kp.ru/online/news/3514573/);
 Дело Леонида Волкова (Постановление Тверского районного суда города Москвы от 30 мая 2019 года по делу № 05-0552/2019);
 Дело Алёны Червяковой (Постановление Советского районного суда города Брянска от 29 мая 2019 года по делу № 5-327/2019);
Дело Юрия Картыжева (Постановление Чудовского районного суда города Чудова от 22 апреля 2019 года по делу № 5-59/2019);
Дело Кирилла Попутникова (Постановление Коровского районного суда города Ярославля от 14 мая 2019 года по делу № 5-57/2019);
Дело Юрия Шадрина (Постановление Верховажского районного суда Вологодской области от 7 июня 2019 года по делу № 5-35/2019);
Дело Светланы Бакшеевой (Постановление Котласского районного суда Архангельской области от 17 июня 2019 года по делу № 5-168/2019);
Дело Сергея Командирова (Постановление Ленинского районного суда города Смоленска от 28 июня 2019 года по делу № 5-497/2019);
Дело Ивана Пахно (Постановление Изобильного районного суда Ставропольского края от 1 июля 2019 года по делу № 5-696/2019);
Дело Елены Макаровой (Постановление Октябрьского районного суда города Архангельска от 18 июля 2019 года по делу № 5-392/2019);
Дело М. Епифановой (Постановление Мотыгинского районного суда Красноярского края от 19 июня 2019 года по делу № 5-48/2019);
Дело А. Алексеева (Постановление Уссурийского районного суда Приморского края от 4 июня 2019 года по делу № 5-1401/2019);
Дело Ильи Путевского (Постановление Осенниковского городского суда Кемеровской области от 25 июня 2019 года по делу № 5-39/2019);
Дело Даниила Фертикова (Постановление Октябрьского районного суда города Ижевска от 9 июня 2019 года по делу № 5-119/2019);
Дело С Дёмина (Постановление Серовского районного суда Свердловской области от 1 июля 2019 года по делу № 5-101-2019);
Дело Е. Носкова (Постановление Енисейского районного суда Красноярского края от 8 августа 2019 года по делу № 5-53/2019);
 Article 212.1 of the Criminal Code of the Russian Federation.