Russian President Vladimir Putin speaks via video during a news conference in Moscow, Russia, on December 17, 2020. Russian officials have recently moved to curb the internet following investigative reports on the alleged poisoning of Aleksei Navalny. (AP/Alexander Zemlianichenko)

Russia moves to curb internet following investigative reports on Navalny poisoning

Vilnius, Lithuania, December 22, 2020—Russian authorities have advanced measures to punish online libel, police the internet, and protect officials’ personal data since December 14, when international news websites published reports investigating the poisoning of opposition leader Aleksei Navalny, according to human rights news website Mediazona and a media lawyer interviewed by CPJ. The joint investigation by Bellingcat and Russian news outlet The Insider, in cooperation with CNN and Germany’s Der Spiegel, alleged that Russian security services attempted to kill Navalny in August 2020. Russian officials dismissed the findings and denied involvement in Navalny’s poisoning, according to The Associated Press.

On December 14, Dmitry Vyatkin, a member of the ruling United Russia party, proposed in the State Duma, the lower chamber of parliament, a draft amendment to the Russian Criminal Code that would punish libel published on the internet by up to two years in prison, Mediazona reported. Article 128 of the code currently punishes libel via mass media with up to 400 hours of compulsory labor, without distinguishing online publication, according to an explanatory note Vyatkin published on the website of the State Duma. 

On December 22, the State Duma approved an unrelated bill banning the unauthorized publication of security officials’ personal data on its third reading, Mediazona reported, noting that Bellingcat’s investigation relied on personal data obtained online. 

Laws must also be approved by parliament’s upper chamber, the Federation Council, and signed by President Vladimir Putin.

Deputy Minister of the Interior Igor Zubov separately announced the ministry’s plan to create a “cyber police” unit to combat “destructive” information on December 18, though without giving a timeframe, according to Mediazona.

“It’s no surprise that a bombshell investigative news report should spur Russian authorities’ efforts to control information shared on the internet,” said Gulnoza Said, CPJ’s Europe and Central Asia program coordinator, in New York. “Russian lawmakers should reject any measures that could prevent journalists from investigating public officials.”  

Galina Arapova, a media lawyer and director of the Mass Media Defense Center, a Russia-based independent organization that offers legal defense to journalists, told CPJ via phone that Vyatkin’s proposed amendment contradicts international standards, notably by punishing the spread of false information about an unspecified “group of people.” However, she said she did not expect the amendments to be rejected. “The State Duma adopts laws which the authorities consider necessary,” she said.  

In an interview produced by a government commissioner for children’s rights on YouTube, published on December 18, Igor Zubov said that the Interior Ministry would deploy cyber police to “protect young people from destructive information.”

“The internet is being demonized as a place of destructive foreign influences,” Galina Arapova told CPJ. “Cyber police will only demonize the internet in Russia even more.” 

CPJ called Vyatkin multiple times but his phone line in the State Duma was always busy. CPJ calls to Igor Zubov’s phone rang unanswered.