Under the pretext of the epidemic, amendments have been made to Article 207 of the Criminal Code, which previously punished false statements about alleged terrorist acts. On 27 March, Vladimir Putin's spokesman, Dmitry Peskov, declared
that the dissemination of false information about COVID-19 should be punishable by law to not "create panic". On 31 March, the Russian Parliament approved the amendments and on 1 April, Russian President Vladimir Putin signed them (a speed record!). Two amendments to this article of the Criminal Code are 207.1 - Public dissemination of deliberately false information on circumstances that constitute a threat to the life and security of citizens and 207.2 - Public dissemination of deliberately false information of public importance, which leads to serious consequences. They shall be punishable by a fine of between 8,000 and 25,000 € (approximate figures because in rubles) and/or imprisonment if they have caused public health damage or casualties.
From the point of view of jurists, punishment for the premeditated creation of panic, which, according to the explanation in this article of the Code "has caused damage to human health and the environment, significant material losses and the violation of the living conditions of the population" is theoretically justified. But since neither the "damage" nor the "false information" criteria are defined, but rather based solely on the opinions of individual judges--and in the current Russian judicial system, where the courts just confirm any charges in 99.75% (real figures) of cases (including even the most fantastic and absurd ones)--this law becomes a real sledge hammer for smashing freedom of expression. And not just the written word, but also the spoken one too!
On 21 April 2020, the Russian Supreme Court explained
that the criminal consequences of any statement can arise not only when using media and social networks, but also simply when speaking in public. From a lawyer's point of view, this means that if you tell your neighbours that someone was taken to hospital because of COVID-19, and in reality they are suffering from scarlet fever, you could become a criminal. In short, it's become dangerous even to talk about the virus.
But what is perhaps most frightening is that all these amendments will almost certainly be widely used after the epidemic. Because, of course, there is no notion of SARS-CoV-2 virus in the text of the criminal code. "We're opening a Pandora's box. After the outbreak, it will be used in other cases,
Fyodor Trusov, a Moscow lawyer.
For the time being all the known cases of the application of this new law concern exclusively the information related to the coronavirus:
- The first known case of prosecution based on this brand new law is that of Anna Shushpanova, a political activist from the St. Petersburg region. According to the investigators, she published an article in a local group of the social network VKontakte, claiming that one of COVID-19 patients had not been admitted to hospital. She was then reportedly forced to return home by public transport. Although her lawyer argued that it was merely a repost of someone else's article, criminal proceedings were initiated, Shushpanova's home was searched, and all her computer and telephone equipment were seized.
- On 9 April the Russian Investigative Committee announced, without giving many details, that three more criminal investigations had been opened, because of online publications. The first one described the mass contamination of the Russian military in Syria, the second said that the authorities had made the decision to extend the lockdown up to 12 months, and the third described the imminent introduction of a pass system in Moscow. This system was, it should be noted, introduced two days later, but given the peculiar Russian judicial reality, there's absolutely no guarantee that this case will be closed...
- On 13 April, the same Investigative Committee announced that a whole series of criminal proceedings "for spreading public misinformation" have been initiated in different regions of Russia. The report listed Moscow, St. Petersburg, Saratov, Tver, Leningrad regions, the Republic of Buryatia, and Primorsky Krai. Pre-inspections are being carried out by the investigative services in the Samara, Sverdlovsk, Omsk, Khabarovsk and Krasnodar regions, as well as in others, according to this communication. Most of this multitude of cases is only listed, without giving any details.
- One of the most recent cases is that of writer and journalist Tatiana Voltskaya, a member of St Petersburg PEN, who was targeted by investigators because of a publication about the lack of artificial lung ventilation equipment in local hospitals. Voltskaya quoted a doctor who said that because of this lack of equipment, his colleagues are forced to choose who they help and who they don't, "playing with the documentation". "Guess who the chief investigator hurried to investigate..., the head doctors of the hospital, to ask if there's enough manpower and lung ventilation systems, or a journalist? A journalist! " wrote Tatyana Voltskaya on her Facebook. "It is clear that instead of focusing on the real facts, the authorities are trying to silence all the voices that tell the truth." The real reason for the pressure exerted on Ms. Volskaya is related to the request for disclosure of her sources, with which she refuses to comply.
The Mass Media Defense Center (MMDC) is a legal NGO working on judicial aspects and court cases affecting independent media and journalists in Russia. This organization reports a sharp increase in charges based on this newly adopted article of the Criminal Code.
"The new article (207.1) is already becoming the main problem for journalists and bloggers, and even social network users,"
says the director of the MMDC, Galina Arapova. "Our lawyers have already received many requests for help from different regions of Russia since April 1. Journalists and netizens are being targeted for information that differs from official reports and for any critical publication against the authorities or even for group discussions about the virus
Lawyers and human rights activists are rightly concerned that once the pandemic is over, the similar provisions of the Administrative Code will be systematically replaced by those of the criminal one. The possibility of its exceptionally vague interpretation multiplied on the explanations recently given by the Russian Supreme Court will lead to a situation when in Russia where it will be dangerous not only to write, but even to express any point of view that differs from the official one. Such a view may well be considered "fake news" and thus a criminal offence.