- New laws passed by Vladimir Putin will make it illegal to spread “fake news” and other content that is considered disrespectful to the Russian government.
- The passage follows some of the biggest protests Moscow has seen in years over a separate bill that would effectively cut Russia off from foreign internet servers and create a firewall similar to China’s.
- All of the laws have been criticized as authoritarian efforts to silence dissent as part of the country’s broader move to increase “sovereignty” over its internet.
Putin Signs New Laws
Russian President Vladimir Putin signed two new laws on Monday that will make it illegal to spread “fake news” and information which “disrespects” the state.
The first law says that corporate entities like online news outlets that spread “fake news” will face fines of up to 1.5 million rubles, or $22,900. Citizens who spread “fake news” could receive fines up to 400,000 rubles or $6,090, according to Russia’s state-owned newspaper TASS.
The second law punishes users and outlets that post content that “shows obvious disrespect for society, the state and official symbols of Russia, the Russian Constitution or other agencies,” according to TASS.
Offenders of the second law face a fine of up to 100,000 rubles ($1,552) for a first offense, and up to 300,000 rubles ($4,656) and 15 days in jail for repeat offenders.
Under these new laws, prosecutors can report online media to the government – which in turn can block access to websites if the content violates the law either by spreading “fake news” or insulting the government.
Significant Changes to Russian Censorship
While these laws might not come as a surprise, many experts have said they represent a significant shift in the censorship of Russia’s internet.
According to Matthew Rojansky, the director of the Wilson Center’s Kennan Institute:
“Russia has not historically had major constraints on Internet freedom. The Internet has thus been one realm in which full diversity of opinion and free expression, even on the most sensitive political topics, were generally permitted […] The prosecutor general now has essentially unconstrained authority to determine that any speech is unacceptable under the new law.”
Maria Snegovaya, an adjunct fellow at the Center for European Policy Analysis, elaborated on that point, saying that the prosecutor’s office can now block news sources before any sort of ruling by a court or a judge.
“In other words, it significantly expands the repressive power of Russia’s repressive apparatus,” Snegovaya said, comparing the legislation to laws implemented by Russian dictator Joseph Stalin.
Protests Over Other Internet Bills
These new laws passed by Putin are not the only controversial pieces of legislation that attempt to restrict internet access.
Just last week, demonstrators hosted massive protests in Moscow and two other Russian cities over yet another internet bill. The protests in Moscow were described as some of the biggest protests in the Russian capital in years.
White Counter, an NGO that counts participants at rallies, stated that 15,300 people attended the protest, while Moscow police put the numbers at 6,500.
The bill in question would essentially cut Russia off from the global internet by directing Russian web traffic through servers controlled by the government. It also could create a system that would allow the Russian internet to work without foreign infrastructure.
Supporters of the bill say that it is necessary to protect Russia from foreign meddling, but critics have said the bill resembles China’s internet firewall, calling it an “iron curtain” and arguing it will stifle dissent.
The Trend of Censorship
The law that sparked the protest has not yet been passed by Parliament.
While the laws passed by Putin on Monday will certainly bring considerable change to Russian censorship, these kinds of laws are becoming increasingly common in Russia. The legislation reflects broader efforts by the government to increase “sovereignty” over its internet.
Russia has introduced other internet laws in the last few years.
Last year, a communications oversight agency tried to ban the messaging app Telegram after the company refused to give the government access to encryption tools that would allow them to read users’ messaging data, a move which prompted another wave of protests.
Some have said these tactics are a way of controlling public discourse, especially as Putin’s approval rating has fallen significantly in the last few years.
This last point is significant because some experts have said that the new laws passed Monday could make it almost impossible for individuals or groups to call for public protests because protesting government policies and actions could be considered disrespect of the government under the new law.
All of these laws have serious implications, but they also seem to show a trend in Russian censorship.
See what others are saying: (Washington Post) (NPR) (Moscow Times)
Leaked Documents and Photos Give Unprecedented Glimpse Inside Xinjiang’s Detention Camps
The so-called vocational schools, which China claims Uyghurs enter willingly as students, oversee their detainees with watchtowers armed with machine guns and sniper rifles, as well as guards instructed to shoot to kill anyone trying to escape.
Detained for Growing a Beard
The BBC and a consortium of investigative journalists have authenticated and published a massive trove of leaked documents and photographs exposing the Chinese government’s persecution of Uyghur Muslims in unprecedented detail.
According to the outlet, an anonymous source hacked several police computer servers in the northwestern Xinjiang province, then sent what has been dubbed the Xinjiang police files to the scholar Dr. Adrian Zenz, who gave them to reporters.
Among the files are more than 5,000 police photographs of Uyghurs taken between January and July 2018, with accompanying data indicating at least 2,884 of them were detained.
Some of the photos show guards standing nearby with batons.
The youngest Uyghur photographed was 15 at the time of their detention, and the oldest was 73.
One document is a list titled “Relatives of the Detained,” which contains thousands of people placed under suspicion for guilt by association with certain family members. It includes a woman whose son authorities claimed had “strong religious leanings” because he didn’t smoke or drink alcohol. He was jailed for ten years on terrorism charges.
The files also include 452 spreadsheets with information on more than a quarter of a million Uyghurs, some of whom were detained retroactively for offenses committed years or even decades ago.
One man was jailed for ten years in 2017 because he “studied Islamic scripture with his grandmother” for a few days in 2010.
Authorities targeted hundreds more for their mobile phone use, like listening to “illegal lectures” or downloading encrypted apps. Others were punished for not using their phones enough, with “phone has run out of credit” listed as evidence they were trying to evade digital surveillance.
One man’s offense was “growing a beard under the influence of religious extremism.”
The Most Militarized Schools in the World
The files include documents outlining conditions inside Xinjiang’s detention camps, or so-called “Vocational Skills Education and Training Centers.”
Armed guards occupy every part of the facilities, with machine guns and sniper rifles stationed on watchtowers. Police protocols instruct guards to shoot to kill any so-called “students” trying to escape if they fail to stop after a warning shot.
Any apprehended escapees are to be taken away for interrogation while camp management focuses on “stabilizing other students’ thoughts and emotions.”
The BBC used the documents to reconstruct one of the camps, which data shows holds over 3,700 detainees guarded by 366 police officers who oversee them during lessons.
If a “student” must be transferred to another facility, the protocols say, police should blindfold them, handcuff them and shackle their feet.
Dr. Zenz published a peer-reviewed paper on the Xinjiang police files, in which he found that more than 12% of Uyghur adults were detained over 2017 and 2018.
“Scholars have argued that political paranoia is a common feature of atrocity crimes,” he wrote. “Here, it is suggested that the pre-emptive internment of large numbers of ordinary citizens can be explained as a devolution into political paranoia that promotes exaggerated threat perceptions.”
See what others are saying: (BBC) (Newsweek) (The Guardian)
Biden Vows to Defend Taiwan if Attacked by China
Some praised the remarks for clarifying U.S. foreign policy, while others feared they could escalate tensions with China.
Biden’s Remarks Create Confusion
During a Monday press conference in Tokyo, U.S. President Joe Biden said the United States would intervene to defend Taiwan in the event of a Chinese attack.
The remark caught many off guard because it contradicted decades of traditional U.S. foreign policy toward China.
A reporter said, “You didn’t want to get involved in the Ukraine conflict militarily for obvious reasons. Are you willing to get involved militarily to defend Taiwan if it comes to that?”
“Yes,” Biden answered. “That’s a commitment we made. We are not — look, here’s the situation. We agree with a One China policy. We signed onto it and all the attendant agreements made from there.”
“But the idea that it can be taken by force — just taken by force — is just not appropriate,” he continued. “It will dislocate the entire region and be another action similar to what happened in Ukraine.”
Beijing considers the Taiwanese island to be a breakaway province, but Taiwan, officially the Republic of China, has claimed to represent the real historical lineage of China.
Since 1972, the U.S. has officially recognized only one China, with its capital in Beijing. However, Washington maintains extensive informal diplomatic ties with Taipei and provides military assistance through weapons and training.
Successive U.S. presidents have also committed to a policy of “strategic ambiguity,” refusing to promise or rule out a direct military intervention in case China attacks Taiwan.
The strategy is meant to deter China while avoiding a hard commitment to any action.
Biden Sparks Controversy
The White House quickly sent a statement to reporters appearing to walk back Biden’s remark.
“As the president said, our policy has not changed,” the statement said. “He reiterated our One China Policy and our commitment to peace and stability across the Taiwan Strait. He also reiterated our commitment under the Taiwan Relations Act to provide Taiwan with the military means to defend itself.”
Monday was not the first time Biden made similar remarks regarding China and Taiwan.
Last August, he promised that “we would respond” if there was an attack against a fellow member of NATO and then added, “same with Japan, same with South Korea, same with Taiwan.”
In October, he again told CNN’s Anderson Cooper that the U.S. would defend Taiwan from a Chinese attack, prompting the White House to hurriedly walk back his statement.
Monday’s remark was received with support as well as criticism.
“Strategic ambiguity is over. Strategic clarity is here,” Tweeted Matthew Kroenig, professor of government at Georgetown University. “This is the third time Biden has said this. Good. China should welcome this. Washington is helping Beijing to not miscalculate.”
“It is truly dangerous for the president to keep misstating U.S. policy toward Taiwan,” historian Stephen Wertheim wrote in a tweet. “How many more times will this happen?”
“The West’s robust response to Russian aggression in Ukraine could serve to deter China from invading Taiwan, but Biden’s statement risks undoing the potential benefit and instead helping to bring about a Taiwan conflict,” he added. “Self-injurious and entirely unforced.”
Biden also unveiled the Indo-Pacific Economic Framework for Prosperity (IPEF), a trade agreement signed by the U.S. and 12 Asian nations.
The agreement appeared to many like another move to cut off China from regional trade pacts and supply chains in Washington’s strategic competition with Beijing.
See what others are saying: (CNN) (The New York Times) (The South China Morning Post)
Russia Takes Over 900 Azovstal Fighters Prisoner as Mariupol Surrenders
Ukraine said the soldiers successfully completed their mission, but the fall of Mariupol represents a strategic win for Putin.
Azovstal Waves the White Flag
Russia’s foreign ministry announced on Wednesday that it had captured 959 Ukrainians from the Azovstal steelworks, where besieged soldiers have maintained the last pocket of resistance in Mariupol for weeks.
A ministry spokesperson said in a statement that 51 were being treated for injuries, and the rest were sent to a former prison colony in the town of Olenivka in a Russian-controlled area of Donetsk.
The defense ministry released videos of what it claimed were Ukrainian fighters receiving care at a hospital in the Russian-controlled town of Novoazovsk. In one, a soldier tells the camera he is being treated “normally” and that he is not being psychologically pressured, though it is unclear whether he is speaking freely.
It was unclear if any Ukrainians remained in Azovstal, but Denis Pushilin, the head of the self-proclaimed republic of Donetsk, said in a statement Wednesday that the “commanders of the highest level” were still hiding in the plant.
Previously, estimates put the number of soldiers inside Azovstal around 1,000.
Ukraine officially gave up Mariupol on Monday, when the first Azovstal fighters began surrendering.
Reuters filmed dozens of wounded Ukrainians being driven away in buses marked with the Russian pro-war “Z” symbol.
Ukraine’s deputy defense minister said in a Tuesday statement that the Ukrainian prisoners would be swapped in an exchange for captured Russians. But numerous Russian officials have signaled that the Ukrainian soldiers should be tried.
Mariupol Falls into Russian Hands
After nearly three months of bombardment that left Mariupol in ruins, Russia’s combat mission in the city has ended.
The sprawling complex of underground tunnels, caverns, and bunkers beneath Azovstal provided a defensible position for the Ukrainians there, and they came to represent the country’s resolve in the face of Russian aggression for many spectators.
Earlier this month, women, children, and the elderly were evacuated from the plant.
The definitive capture of Mariupol, a strategic port city, is a loss for Ukraine and a boon for Russia, which can now establish a land bridge between Crimea and parts of Eastern Ukraine controlled by Russian separatists. The development could also free up Russian troops around Mariupol to advance on the East, while additional reinforcements near Kharkiv descend from the north, potentially cutting off Ukrainian forces from the rest of the country.
The Ukrainian military has framed events in Mariupol as at least a partial success, arguing that the defenders of Azovstal completed their mission by tying down Russian troops and resources in the city and giving Ukrainians elsewhere more breathing room.
It claimed that doing so prevented Russia from rapidly capturing the city of Zaporizhzhia further to the west.