Feykovyye Novosti: Russia’s Fake News Laws and International Law

The Russian Federation is well known for being, at the least, an authoritarian state and, at the most, a totalitarian one. In the past few weeks, while many events have occurred showcasing Putin’s Russia being a totalitarian state, one incident in question stands out.

On 4 March, the State Duma passed a bill “meant to penalize people who knowingly “distort the purpose, role and tasks of the Russian Armed Forces, as well as other units during special military and other operations,” including people who spread unapproved information about Russian war losses” upon which President Putin approved the bill. According to ABC News, the bill mandates “ sentences of up to three years or fines for spreading what authorities deem to be false news about the military” with the maximum sentence being up to fifteen years in prison for cases which have “severe consequences”. The specific text of the law states;

“Public dissemination of deliberately false information about the use of the Armed Forces of the Russian Federation” will appear in the Criminal Code (CC) of the Russian Federation. This article provides for imprisonment for up to three years or a fine of up to 1.5 million rubles. At the same time, if an official position is used in the commission of a crime or actions are committed out of mercenary motives, then a punishment of five to 10 years in prison or a fine of up to 5 million rubles is provided. If the fake information caused serious consequences, the term of imprisonment will be from 10 to 15 years

Two other articles were also passed alongside this one which focus on “Public activity aimed at discrediting the use of the Russian military with the goal of protecting Russia and its citizens as well as supporting international peace and safety” or “Calls to and encouragement of restrictive mechanisms [i.e., sanctions] against Russia, Russian citizens, and Russian entities”; both carry fines for initial violations and prison sentences of up to three years for repeat offenses.

This law had widespread effects in the nation. Both CNN and the BBC either stopped broadcasting from the Russian Federation or pulled their journalists from working inside the country while the social media app TikTok and Bloomberg News all ceased operations in Russia. Other news/social media, telecommunications, and tech agencies also either issued condemnations or ceased operating in Russia earlier this month in response to the bill’s passing.

Almost immediately, the law went into effect with the arrest of “Father Ioann Burdin of the Resurrection Church in Russia’s western Kostroma region” on 6 March for “a public offense aimed at discrediting the Russian armed forces which are conducting a special military operation [in Ukraine]”. According to Independent Catholic News, four days later, Father Burdin was fined “35,000 rubles (about £200)”. The Kharkiv Human Rights Protection Group reported that “60 people had been detained over the new legislation” with some “facing prosecution under the articles on supposedly violating the procedure for holding a meeting”.

Others have also been charged under this new law, ranging from public speeches to social media posts that express support for Ukraine.

Prior to and throughout Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, Putin has heavily pushed various justifications to the public as to why Russia has invaded Ukraine, ranging from a joint U.S.-Ukrainian effort to gain nuclear weapons to a Ukrainian organized genocide of Russians to a Nazi infested, drug addled government. All of these are either outright lies or lacking in legitimate evidence, yet are used increasingly by Putin to argue (at least to the Russian public) that Russia is launching this invasion (called a “special military operation” in Russia) in order to persuade the people that the nation is undertaking this fight for the betterment of not only the Russian Federation, but for the benefit of all Ukrainians.

However, like with all of Russia’s actions both domestically and in Ukraine (from bombing hospitals to indiscriminately killing civilians to illegally holding foreign land), they repeatedly betray the nation’s intentions. This instance of the crafting of a harsh law with the intent of suppressing internationally recognized freedom of speech and press is clearly being performed in order to secure the Russian populace from independent third-party investigations, foreign intelligence assessments, and unofficial frontline reports from Russian, Ukrainian, and foreign soldiers. It would preserve Russian morale and insulate the entire Russian people, Armed Forces, and government from reports, information, or other evidence that, often correctly, runs contrary to Russian worldview and geopolitical goals. These forms of reports and investigations pose a security threat to Putin’s power, hence why Russia would be more in line with the censorship of content online to contain the spread of realities harmful to their carefully created narratives.

In terms of combating this kind of activity, the West will be able to do little more than public condemnations or increased sanctions against the Russian government. More than likely, a public initiative would be more effective, with journalists from worldwide institutions like the New York Times and Washington Post and wire services like UPI and Associated Press continuing to diligently report on the Ukraine crisis and accurately report the facts on the ground in addition to reporting on abuses committed in the conflict and those by the Putin regime. Speaking truth to power is imperative in this case and nowhere will that be more important that in the online space.

In an interview with The Guardian, Senior Fellow Andrei Kolesnikov with the Carnegie Endowment, “The message from the Kremlin is simple: ‘Be afraid, anyone can be next’…We will be seeing more of these charges soon. They are just getting started”. This is purely a start for Putin’s Russia; with time, they will become more authoritarian and likely verge into totalitarianism with increased human rights abuses, violations, and stricter measures that stifle man’s inalienable human rights, as described by Thomas Hobbes, John Locke, and James Madison.

Alan Cunningham
Alan Cunningham
Alan Cunningham is a graduate of Norwich University's Master of Arts in International Relations program. He is currently working as an AP U.S. History Teacher in San Antonio, but intends to join the U.S. Navy as an Officer in the Summer of 2022. He has been accepted to a PhD in History program with the University of Birmingham in the UK. He has been published in the Jurist, the U.S. Army War College's War Room, Security Magazine, and the Asia-Pacific Security Magazine, in addition to many others.