A Russian bill aimed at fake news is making its way through the country’s parliament. According to AFP News, the bill would punish those who post content that a court considers false and refuse to take it down. If made into law, accountability of content would fall on both individual users and reporters.
Russia has never had much of a history of media freedom. Contrary opinions during Soviet times led to lengthy visits to Siberian gulags, and all printed material had to go through government censors before it was published. After the fall of the USSR, freedom of speech was partially restored, with some media still suffering under government censorship.
Critics say the new bill would give dangerous power to Russian President Vladimir Putin.
Censorship of journalists and others is already taking place in Russia where current laws make “extreme” content illegal, according to Human Rights Watch. This crackdown has made it difficult and sometimes impossible for those unhappy with the government to get their message out.
Online posts concerning the Russian takeover of Crimea saw increased scrutiny and punishment under the extremism laws. Satire of the Russian Orthodox Church has also been met with this law.
Social media remains one of the last holdouts of free speech in Russia. The new bill aims to tighten the government’s control of information, narrowing in on anything posted on a site with more than 100,000 daily visitors, The New York Times reported.
Ultimately, the truthfulness of a post falls on a court full of inherently flawed people who could hold a major bias.
Protests are often subject to similar hostility. Many examples of the Russian police brutalizing crowds can be seen in Western media. The videos are not likely to be circulated in Russia.
On top of police brutality, Putin has already shown a pattern of eliminating those who threaten his power. A former Russian spy and vocal critic of Putin died of radiation poisoning after a mysterious dose of polonium-210. Recently, suspected Russian operatives were arrested in the U.K. after allegedly killing a mother-of-three using a nerve agent.
Seeing how Putin can misuse the proposed law doesn’t take much imagination.
Users posting content critical of Russia or members of its government could face prison. Running against someone you can’t criticize would be nearly impossible, further cementing Putin’s reign. And although term limits do exist to reign him in, lawmakers have already begun to bend. Some have submitted proposals to give him more time in office.
If the censorship bill becomes law, it would signal the end of another venue for criticism of Putin. With that, Russia would be taking some major strides toward becoming a full-fledged dictatorship.
Supporters of the law may claim it only affects fake news, but that doesn’t offer much comfort.
The words “fake news” have been in the American vocabulary since the early days of the 2016 Election. Twisting facts, anonymous sources, and outright bad journalism can all lead to accusations of fake news. So can posting content others don’t agree with.
Facebook experimented with fact-checking posts, with disastrous results. A government attempting to do the same thing is guaranteed to be downright deadly.
Truth ultimately can’t be outsourced to somebody else. Freedom of speech comes with the assumption that every person is capable of differentiating fact from fiction and, therefore, doesn’t need a government to make those decisions for them.
Putin isn’t likely to agree anytime soon.
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