Russia Makes Insulting Putin Online a Criminal Offense Under Fake News Ban

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Vladimir Putin

The law is part of a controversial package of new measures aimed at tightening up cyber security.

Russia has outlawed online fake news posts and made it an offense to insult President Vladimir Putin and other government officials. 

The law is part of a controversial package of new measures aimed at tightening up cyber security.

The new law make it a criminal offense to publish fake news stories online and also a punishable offense to insult or bring into disrepute the president, other government officials and the institutions of the state, including the whole government. It carries fines of up to 15 million rubles ($23,000) for publishing false information and 3 million rubles ($4,600) for insulting the president or government, with sentences of up to 15 days' imprisonment for repeat offenders.

The law is designed to crack down on what lawmakers term information that "exhibits blatant disrespect for society, government, official government symbols, the constitution or governmental bodies of Russia."

Critics say the law, part of a broader package of measures to increase cyber security currently being rushed through the Russian parliament, are not properly thought out, are vaguely worded and threaten to stifle free speech.

It will impact on Russian and Western media platforms, such as Facebook and YouTube, which may be required to identify and police "false news" and take down examples of content deemed in contravention of the law.

The new law reflects a trend toward restricting free expression in Russia established within the first few months of Putin's first term as president nearly 20 years ago, when independent television stations came under attack, eventually leading to a change in ownership for a key Kremlin critic, NTV, which was bought out by Kremlin- compliant state-connected Gazprom Media.

Today, most Russian TV news outlets are state-owned and closely follow the Kremlin line on all major news stories. Recent anti-government demonstrations were ignored by all national free-to-air news services, with only independent online subscription channel Dozhd TV (TV Rain) providing Russian viewers with any footage of the events. 

The law comes at a time when the government is also considering controversial measures aimed at restricting Russians' Internet access.

A Russia-specific Intranet, modeled on China's "Great Firewall" model that would be accessible only via government-controlled Russia-specific filters, has sparked protests around the country. Earlier this month, thousands of people took to the streets in Moscow in some of the biggest protests seen in the capital in years, with other large rallies in the southwestern city of Voronezh and the southeastern Russian city of Khabarovsk.

There have been increasing attempts by the Kremlin in recent years to rein in the freedom of the Internet, including attempts to block access to certain websites and messaging services, such as Telegram, a Russian version of WhatsApp, and requirements on foreign social media services, such as Google-owned YouTube and Facebook, to use Russian-based servers.

The Hollywood Reporter approached both Facebook and YouTube for comment, but neither company immediately responded.