September 1 is Knowledge Day in Russia, a big cultural holiday marking the beginning of the school year. Russian legislators prepared a special gift for the kids this year, introducing radical new ways to protect children and young adults from "detrimental information." Now, what this encompasses is not actually outlined in the law, but the new regulations kicked in on September 1, affecting all media, including TV and the internet.
Heading back to school this year, Russian children said do svidaniya to any television with scenes depicting criminal activities, violence, sex, and immoral habits like smoking, drinking, gambling, or swearing. The broad-ranging definitions in the law means that heavy editing will likely be required of both wicked Western imports and wholesome Russian (and old Soviet) cartoons and movies.
Prior attempts to limit the destructive power of American television concentrated on the use of vague and ill-defined extremism laws. For example, in 2008 a Moscow city court issued a warning to the TV station 2x2 that aired an episode of South Park, which the court deemed "extremist." The show was almost banned, thanks in part to an expert testimony provided by Professor Igor Ponkin, who explained how the episode incited violence toward Christians, Muslims, and members of other confessions. This year, Mr. Ponkin authored an even more convincing testimony against Pussy Riot, three of whose members were recently convicted to two years in prison for "hooliganism motivated by religious hatred."
While South Park's Mr. Hankey has been under threat in Russia since 2008, his colleagues Kenny and The Simpsons' Itchy and Scratchy are only beginning now to get acquainted with the power of Russia's state machine. 2x2's executive Lev Makarov has already confirmed that his TV channel will no longer be able to show either Kenny or Itchy & Scratchy, removing some episodes from the rotation altogether and shifting some to time slots between 11 p.m. and 4 a.m. Don't stay up late, kids!
A special present was sent to all internet users, too, as the new law institutes an extrajudicial method of controlling sites with detrimental information. In trying to protect kids from sites containing pornography and information about drug use or weapons, the legislators decided to create a special "black list" of sites that will be shut down in Russia. Starting this week, Russian government officials are able to bypass court proceedings and unilaterally decide what to censor. Placing one page on the black list may lead to the closing of an entire website if the owners don't comply and remove the detrimental information. Civil society groups and media companies have warned against the ill-effects of this law, and earlier this year Wikipedia protested by shutting down its entire Russian site for a day.
The detrimental information law caps off a summer of extremely active legislative work in Russia. The State Duma has already increased fines for participating in "illegal demonstrations," addressed all external foes by approving new strict regulations for foreign-funded nongovernmental organizations that will now be referred to as "foreign agents," and reinserted libel provisions back into the criminal code just six months after decriminalizing them in a huge but short-lived victory for Russia's liberalism. While the legislators have been active, Russia's law enforcement officials kept up with the pace, sentencing Pussy Riot to two years each and Taisiya Osipova to 8 years, filing charges against anticorruption activist Alexei Navalny, arresting on dubious charges more than a dozen participants of the May 6 Bolotnaya protests, upholding the 100-year ban for gay pride parades in Moscow, and expanding Russia's "universe of extremism" with new warnings to media outlets and fresh bans on the Jehovah's Witnesses, bloggers, activists, artists, and others.
So as we say goodbye to the "Summer of Laws and Crackdowns" it seems unlikely that we'll see either Itchy & Scratchy or rule of law in Russia for a while.