NEW YORK—The Russian legislature’s passage of a law creating new penalties for website hosts who publish “fake news” or “indecent” posts represents a dangerous new tool for online censorship, and is the latest step in a country that is intent on encroaching upon digital freedom, PEN America said today.

On March 6, 2019, Russia’s parliament approved a new law that provides Internet regulators with significant powers to punish websites for hosting or publishing broadly defined “fake news.” Regulators can also punish website owners for hosting “indecent” posts that demonstrate “disrespect for society, the state, and state symbols,” including government officials.

Under this law, the Russian telecommunications regulator Roskomnadzor will have significant powers to demand the removal of online content, to block access to websites that fall foul of the law, and to impose fines on sites that publish “fake news” or “promote disrespect” against the government. The law includes provisions whereby repeat offenders can be jailed for up to 15 days. In July 2018, when the law was first proposed as a bill, PEN America declared that the legislation represented a “mechanism for censorship.”

“The issue of fake news is a complex one for free expression advocates, but in an atmosphere of increasing restrictions on freedom of expression in Russia, it is very clear that this bill will be used to censor critics of the government,” said Polina Kovaleva, Eurasia Project Director at PEN America. “The language in the bill punishing ‘disrespect of the government’ is an alarming and blatant attempt to silence opposition. We are extremely troubled to see this legislation advance towards passage.”

PEN America previously spoke out against violations of digital freedom in Russia. In February 2019 alone, PEN also condemned a bill requiring all Internet traffic to pass through government-controlled routing points, Google’s reported decision to capitulate to Russian censors by deleting search results, and the Russian government’s increased surveillance of literary and news websites. 

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