Russian President Vladimir Putin signed a set of laws Monday allowing the Kremlin to punish online media and individuals for spreading insulting information about government officials or other content deemed to be “fake news.”
The controversial move by the censorship-friendly president allows him to punish anyone who spreads information that “exhibits blatant disrespect for the society, government, official government symbols, constitution or governmental bodies of Russia,” according to The Moscow Times, an English-language newspaper based in the Russian capital.
The punishments include fines of up to 1.5 million rubles ― approximately $22,900 ― for news outlets that repeatedly spread “fake news,” and fines of up to 300,000 rubles ― about $4,700 ― and 15 days in jail for insulting state symbols or Russian authorities.
Throughout the bills’ swift passage through Russian parliament, thousands of demonstrators protested against the legislation on Moscow’s streets, and the country’s Presidential Human Rights Council raised concern that the measures could be used to unfairly silence critics ― something critics have been on high alert over, as so many of Putin’s opponents have turned up poisoned or mysteriously dead in recent years.
Though Putin firmly denies any connection to those attacks, the Kremlin has a longstanding policy of cracking down on critics. During nationwide protests against the government in 2017, police arrested hundreds of young critics en masse in what human rights groups called a major violation.
The looming threats to the media from the Kremlin mirror the attitude of U.S. President Donald Trump, with whom Putin has maintained a close but secretive political relationship despite evidence of Russia meddling in the 2016 U.S. election. Throughout his campaign and presidency, Trump has railed against most mainstream media as “fake news,” particularly in any reports that criticize him.