Russia’s efforts to flood the media landscape in both the United States and the European Union with hacked emails and fake news have been well documented. Less known are Russia’s own moves to drain its information space of news and facts that do not conform to Kremlin narratives.
Russia has long handed out criminal penalties to individuals and entities for circulating information on Russian territory that authorities deem to be “false.” This policy enjoys legal sanction in the form of an executive order – On the Approval of the Doctrine on Informational Security of the Russian Federation – signed by President Vladimir Putin last December. The order effectively acknowledges that the supremacy of the state’s version of events is a vital national interest. Accordingly, information portraying Russia’s government and its policies in a “biased” manner threaten the nation’s information security, the document states.
Of course, the matter of what constitutes bias in information is left for authorities to define. Independent observers describe the Russian government’s definition of “biased” or “false” information as anything that challenges or undermines an official viewpoint or policy.
Russian legislation does not only target news. History is also the focus of intense government scrutiny. To help officials craft historical narratives, an article entitled, On the Rehabilitation of Nazism, was added to Russia’s criminal code in 2014. The statute establishes penalties for the intentional dissemination of “false” information about the Soviet Union’s involvement in World War II. SOVA-Center, an NGO that tracks abuses of anti-extremist legislation in Russia, noted that the law had no practical purpose, and simply acts to censor historical debate about controversial episodes of the Soviet past.
Authorities have assembled a vast surveillance network, covering all forms of media, to enforce its doctrines.
The extent to which the Russian state is stifling the free flow of information and legitimate public debate is highlighted by the prosecution of Vladimir Luzgin during the summer of 2016 by prosecutors in the Siberian city of Perm.
Luzgin is believed to be the first individual to face criminal charges under the “Rehabilitation of Nazism” statute. His supposed crime was sharing an article on VKontakte, the Russian equivalent of Facebook, titled 15 Facts About Stepan Bandera’s Followers About Which the Kremlin is Silent.
Bandera was a controversial Ukrainian nationalist who worked to create an independent Ukrainian state amid the tumult of World War II. Russian officials consider him to be a traitorous agitator and a fascist sympathizer, and the Kremlin has framed those who are supportive of Ukraine’s 2014 Euromaidan Revolution as Bandera-line fascists.
But it was not the information about Bandera that appeared to anger Russian authorities the most, it was a fact contained in the shared article – that the Soviets and the Nazis jointly invaded Poland in 1939, thus launching World War II.
That the post was viewed by only twenty people did not stop the court from fining Luzgin 200,000 rubles (3,400 dollars) on the grounds that he circulated “knowingly false information.”
To establish knowledge of and intent in disseminating false information, the court looked into Luzgin’s education. Specifically, the court considered that Luzgin’s good grades in history classes up until university should have made him see the falsity of the article that he shared. The court went even further, articulating that Luzgin’s education made him aware of the risks of such misinformation, particularly in rehabilitating Nazi ideology and forming strong negative attitudes towards the role of the Soviet Union in the war.
The court’s reasoning on Luzgin’s education ignores the possibility of inaccuracies or shortcoming in school or university curricula.
Independent observers assert that Luzgin’s punishment was politically motivated, arguing that his conduct should be categorized as a legitimate discussion of history, to which he has a right to under the Russian Constitution and international freedom of expression norms.
The Human Rights Committee, a body of independent experts that monitors the implementation of the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, has said that laws which “penalize the expression of opinions about historical facts are incompatible with the obligations that the Covenant.”
The case against Luzgin highlights the double standard that Russia employs concerning the dissemination of news and information. In the Kremlin’s view, all opinions deserve to get a fair hearing in the West, but inside Russia, only one opinion – the state’s – matters.
There is no doubt that “fake news” should be addressed, as it has the potential to undermine the cohesion and stability of any given society. However, addressing the issue by restricting free speech is tantamount to censorship, and in the end, is likely to do more harm than good.
Bakhtiyor Avezdjanov is a program officer for Columbia Global Freedom of Expression, an initiative seeking to advance understanding of the international and national norms and institutions that protect the free flow of information. Prior to joining Columbia University, he worked with the UNHCR in Sudan, as well as in Kyrgyzstan for Freedom House, the UN Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights, and the Tian Shan Policy Center at the American University of Central Asia. He has focused on issues concerning free speech, torture prevention, and refugee rights.