Last Friday, Russia’s lower house voted on a bill to recriminalize libel and slander, despite these offences having been downgraded from criminal to administrative offences by President Medvedev only in December 2011. The bill envisages fines of up to five million rubles (around 125,000 Euros) or 480 hours of community service for misinformation intentionally disseminated to damage reputation.
On the same day, 323 of the Duma’s 450 deputies also approved a bill requiring all NGOs receiving funding from abroad and engaging in “political activities” to register as “foreign agents”, a loaded Cold War era term that exploits suspicions of foreign interference in Russia’s affairs. NGOs will be forced to display this label on their websites and publications, and to publish a biannual report of their activities as well as an annual financial audit. Failure to comply will be punishable with large fines of up to 1 million Rubles (24,600 Euros), and up to two years of imprisonment.
“We regret that the authorities have decided to rush these bills through parliament despite widespread protests, damaging the notion of dialogue between government and civil society. These moves clearly aim to stifle dissent ahead of protests planned for the fall”, declared Souhayr Belhassen, FIDH President.
On 12 July, the three United Nations Special Rapporteurs on freedom of association, human rights defenders and freedom of expression, urged the State Duma not to adopt the NGO bill, stating that it could adversely affect civil society in Russia.
The NGO and libel bills came one month after Russian President, Vladimir Putin, ratified a set of amendments to the Administrative Code raising the maximum penalty for organizers of illegal protests to a 1 million rubles (24,600 Euros) fine, and two days after Putin’s United Russia party introduced a new amendment threatening citizens’ access to information on the internet by establishing a register of blacklisted websites : this legislation would allow for the blocking of IP-addresses and internet domains, as opposed to merely individual URLs. Giving that a single IP-address generally hosts several internet pages, this could result in the blacklisting of a large number of websites which have not displayed any detrimental information or illegal content under Russian law.