A police officer patrols in front of the Russian State Duma in Moscow on April 8, 2022. The Duma is considering legislation that threatens to further silence the independent media. (AFP/Natalia Kolesnikova)

Russian draft legislation threatens to further silence independent media

Paris, June 23, 2022 – Russian legislators should not enact newly proposed legislation that threatens to further restrict the press, the Committee to Protect Journalists said Thursday.

On June 14, the State Duma, the lower house of Russia’s legislature, passed a bill amending the country’s criminal code to impose prison terms for vague actions against state security or for communications with foreign groups, according to the State Duma’s official website, which includes a draft of the legislation, and news reports. Amendments to the draft law can be submitted until June 27, according to Duma’s website, after which it will pass to the Federation Council, the upper house of the legislature, for approval.

“The proposed amendments to Russia’s criminal code would give authorities yet another tool to go after the few independent media outlets remaining in the country,” said Gulnoza Said, CPJ’s Europe and Central Asia program coordinator, in New York. “Russian legislators should drop these amendments at once, and should instead let the media work freely and without fear of prosecution.”

The draft legislation imposes prison terms of up to eight years for Russian citizens found to be “secretly establishing and maintaining contact with a special service of a foreign state, international or foreign organization, or with their representatives in order to assist them in activities knowingly directed against the security of the Russian Federation.”

The draft also carries penalties of up to seven years in prison for those who commit “public calls for activities against the security of the Russian Federation or for hindering the exercise of their powers by government agencies and their officials.”

“If a journalist writes for an international outlet, will it be considered as collaboration with an international organization against the interests of the Russian Federation?” Dmitry Piskunov, legal counsel for the human-rights news website OVD-Info, said to CPJ in a phone interview.

“If a journalist writes that a yacht belonging to a Russian government official is parked in a European country port, will it be considered as hindering the exercise by government officials of their powers?” he continued. “If the legislation is kept in its current form, everything will remain at the discretion of law enforcement officials. There is much room for misuse of these amendments.”

Aleksei Obukhov, editor of the independent news outlet SOTA, told CPJ via messaging app that “the wording is intentionally as broad and absurd as possible to ensure that the future law will be applied in a repressive way. Not everyone will be imprisoned, only those who need to be.”

The bill would also impose criminal punishment on individuals working abroad with organizations that the government has labeled “undesirable” within Russia. Authorities have labeled media outlets, such as independent investigative news outlet Proekt, as “undesirable,” making it an administrative and criminal offense for individuals or legal entities to work with them.

“This new legislation is an attempt to sever the interaction of the remnants of civil society in Russia with the rest of the world,” Piskunov told CPJ.

On March 4, President Vladimir Putin enacted amendments to the Russian criminal code imposing prison terms for spreading “fake” information about the country’s military. On March 25, Russian legislators expanded the law and introduced punishment for “false” coverage about the country’s government agencies abroad.

On June 7, the State Duma adopted a bill creating a unified register of foreign agents, to which authorities can add any journalist and media outlet subject to alleged “foreign influence,” according to reports.

CPJ emailed the State Duma for comment but did not receive any reply.