Russia’s lower house OKs curbs on Internet, media and activists
The bills passed by Russia’s State Duma are seen as the latest attempt to crack down on resistance to the rule of President Vladimir Putin.
MOSCOW — Russian lawmakers this week passed three measures to increase government control over the Internet, media and foreign-funded activist groups, despite widespread protests from Web professionals, journalists and human rights advocates.
A bill that criminalizes libel and imposes fines of up to $153,400 on violators, and a measure that requires nongovernmental organizations, or NGOs, that receive foreign funding to register as “foreign agents,” were approved by the lower house of the parliament Friday, the last day of the legislative session.
On Wednesday, the lower house unanimously approved a bill that provides for a federal registry of websites that could face being shut down for carrying prohibited material.
The bills are the latest in what is seen as an attempt to crack down on resistance to the rule of President Vladimir Putin, dissent that became more pronounced with mass opposition rallies in December, when Putin was still prime minister.
The measures must still be approved by the upper house and signed by Putin, who in May began his third presidential term, but both moves are expected by the end of the month.
Lyudmila Alekseyeva, a Soviet-era dissident who heads the Moscow Helsinki Group, an influential rights group that receives grants from abroad, called the NGO bill “despicable” and said her group would stop accepting foreign funding.
“I am not a foreign agent. I protect our Russian citizens, their rights, from the Russian government and officials,” Alekseyeva said. “They want to stop the activities of independent human rights organizations.”
Critics of the bill had argued that its goal was to pressure already small and hard-pressed activist groups to reject contributions from overseas or lose credibility by acknowledging working with a foreign government. Russian officials had accused Western governments of trying to influence parliamentary elections in December by aiding election monitoring groups.
Journalists with leading Russian news organizations picketed outside the State Duma building Friday to protest the libel bill, holding signs that read “No to censorship” and “I’m against the libel law.” Libel is often used as a way to shut down news organizations that express views at odds with the government, especially in Russia’s outlying regions.
Under the third bill, law enforcement authorities could shut down websites that exhibit child pornography or promote drug use and other harmful activities. Critics see potential for abuse.
Russian search engine Yandex, popular blog-hosting site LiveJournal and social networking service VKontakte condemned the bill. Wikipedia shut down its Russian site Tuesday and posted the warning, “Imagine a world without free knowledge.”
“The bill invokes fear of censorship,” said Anton Nossik, founder of Russian LiveJournal, whose media company owns Gazeta.ru, one of the leading online news sources in Russia.
Pictured: Russian President Vladimir Putin chairs a meeting at his residence outside Moscow. Three new measures that would put limits on the news media, Internet companies and nongovernmental organizations still require approval of the upper house of parliament and Putin, but both moves are expected by the end of the month. (Alexei Nikolsky, AFP/Getty Images /?)