Russia has just passed a law to jail people for 15 days for 'disrespecting' the government
For all its beauty, history and culture, Russia remains one of the most despotic states in the developed world. Ruling with an iron fist, President Vladimir Putin invokes memories of fallen Soviet leaders such as Lenin and Stalin.
To sceptics, this comparison mightn’t work. After all, Russia has come a long way from the mass starvation and Tsarist inequality of the past. However, the control exerted over its citizens is troubling both for those directly affected and us lucky ones on the outside looking in.
Creating further cause for concern, a new law has been passed by Russian lawmakers which allows authorities to imprison citizens for up to 15 days for disrespecting the government online. Head of the Moscow-based Sova Centre, a watchdog for abuse of anti-extremism legislation, explained that Russians could now be prosecuted for saying things against the president - who had issues with an unruly horse while celebrating International Women's Day - such as “Putin is a bastard”.
Not only is the new legislation a blatant infringement on freedom of speech, it is also ambiguously worded - meaning it can be interpreted or misinterpreted at will. It states that perpetrators can be fined up to 100,000 roubles ($1,500) for “indecent” posts that demonstrate a “blatant disrespect for society, the country, Russia’s official state symbols, the constitution, or the authorities”. Repeat offenders will either face twice this amount or 15 days behind bars.
There are concerns over whether this also includes the sharing of others’ content and visual-based statements - such as memes or political cartoons. “Soon we’ll be telling jokes about the authorities in whispers in the kitchen,” Moscow-based lawyer Sergey Shvakin commented on Facebook.
The law also purports to tackle the spread of “fake news” which, ironically, Russia was a willing supplier of during the 2016 US presidential election. In fact, after a 22-month investigation, Robert Mueller's long-awaited Special Counsel report into this issue is expected to be released soon.
“If we stop calling a fool a fool, he won’t stop being a fool,” stated Sergei Ivanov, a member of parliament with the LDPR party. This marks a departure from the norm for the nationalist political party, which usually stands with the Kremlin on issues of contention.
The law was authored by Andrei Klishas - a senator and close political ally of Putin. At just 33 per cent, Putin’s approval rating has hit a 13-year low due in part to him increasing the retirement age by five years. The results of this poll, by the state-backed Public Opinion Research Centre, were released last month and represent a 37 per cent decline in the Russian general public’s opinion of Putin over just three years.
Although the move would be unprecedented in the west, there are similarly questionable policies in China where state censorship of social media has made global headlines. Apparently sick of being compared to A. A. Milne’s Winnie the Pooh, it seems that President Xi Jinping ordered mentions of the loveable bear to be removed from social media. However, this only severed to add fuel to the fire and Winnie the Pooh is now a symbol of the resistance in China.
Putin is similarly sensitive when it comes to his personal image. A puppet-based television programme which regularly poked fun at him was one of the first victims of his regime. Assuming office in 2000, Putin set about taking control of the television channel which broadcast the show. Before long, NTV was under state control.
Russia provoked global condemnation when examples were made of members of the punk rock band Pussy Riot following a protest performance inside a church. Collectively, they spent years in prison for their seconds-long performance.
President Putin is expected to approve the new legislature in the coming days. “One of the tasks of government bodies is to calmly hear out criticism of its work,” Deputy Communications Minister Alexei Volin told the Vedomosti newspaper. However, it seems the Russian government are simply no longer willing to listen.