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Russia Passes Censorship Law Criminalizing News That ‘Disrespects’ Government

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  • 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.

Putin speaking at the First Russian Internet Economy Forum
Source: President of Russia

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)

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2 Million Protest In Hong Kong After Lam Suspends Extradition Bill

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  • After last week’s protests in Hong Kong over a controversial extradition bill, Chief Executive Carrie Lam said that the bill would be suspended.
  • However, many citizens in Hong Kong want the bill fully withdrawn and are calling for Lam to step down from her position.
  • On Sunday, around two million people hit the streets for protests fighting for those conditions, as well as pushing for police to be investigated for using excessive force during the previous protests.

Protest After Bill’s Suspension

Organizers say that around 2 million people in Hong Kong turned out to protest a controversial extradition bill on Sunday after Cheif Executive Carrie Lam said she would suspend it.

Lam announced Saturday that she would suspend – not withdraw – an extradition bill that would allow Hong Kong citizens to be extradited to China. This move followed a previous round of massive protests that gathered as many as one million Hong Kong residents.  

“I want to stress that the government is adopting an open mind to heed comprehensively different views in society towards the bill,” Lam said in a press conference after announcing its suspension.

However, many thought her actions were not enough. On Sunday, a massive demonstration in Hong Kong saw citizens call for a full withdrawal, along with Lam’s resignation. While organizers claim 2 million people attended the protest, police officers say there were actually about 338,000.

Protesters also referenced last week’s demonstrations, where officers used pepper spray and other tactics to quell crowds. Officers later deemed the protest a riot, which is a crime in Hong Kong. Sunday’s protesters demanded an investigation into the use of police force and called for the “riot” labeling to be rescinded.

Many also honored a man who lost his life protesting on Saturday after he fell trying to hang a banner.

During these protests, police involvement was minimal. Reports say that officers sidelined themselves during the demonstrations and were able to clear the streets by Monday morning.

Lam also issued another statement later on Sunday apologizing for the controversies caused by the bill.

“The Chief Executive apologised to the people of Hong Kong for this and pledged to adopt a most sincere and humble attitude to accept criticisms and make improvements in serving the public,” the statement read.

Responses After Protests

While the protests have lessened, many in Hong Kong still have the urge to keep fighting. Notably, Joshua Wong, a prominent pro-democracy activist who was released from prison on Monday.

Upon his release, he tweeted similar sentiments to the protesters.

Around the globe, others are also responding to what is happening in Hong Kong. After Lam announced the bill suspension, officials in China made a statement.

“We support, respect and understand this decision,” they said.

Secretary of State Mike Pompeo also told Fox News that the United States is monitoring the situation.

“We are watching the people of Hong Kong speak about the things they value,” he said.

Pompeo added that President Donald Trump would meet Chinese President Xi Jinping at the G20 Summit at the end of the month and said the two would discuss the protests then.

See what others are saying: (BBC) (NPR) (TIME)

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Iran Threatens to Violate Nuclear Deal’s Limits on Uranium

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  • Iran announced Monday that it will surpass the amount of uranium it has been allowed to stockpile under the 2015 nuclear deal in 10 days if European nations do not do more to help them mitigate U.S. sanctions.
  • The announcement comes after the U.S. blamed Iran for attacking two tankers in the Gulf of Oman on Thursday and provided what U.S. officials believed was video evidence of Iranian military officials removing a bomb.
  • Iran has denied the allegations and Germany, as well as the Japanese owner of one of the tankers, have said the video the U.S. claims proves Iran launched the attack does not provide enough evidence.

Announcement

Iran announced Monday that it has significantly ramped up its enrichment of uranium and said it will exceed the amount of uranium it has been allowed to stockpile under the 2015 nuclear deal in 10 days.

While certainly a big deal, Monday’s announcement does not necessarily come as a surprise. On May 8, Iranian president Hassan Rouhani announced that the country would stop complying with some of their commitments under the nuclear deal.

Rouhani said Iran would no longer respect certain restrictions under the deal, such as building stockpiles of enriched uranium and heavy water.

He also said Iran would give the other countries that signed the deal 60 days to help ease the sanctions imposed by the U.S. on Irans oil and banking industries, or Iran would slowly stop their compliance with the deal piece by piece.

While that 60-day period technically does not end for a few more weeks, Iran has made it clear that they are not happy with the progress that has been made.

In a televised speech earlier today, Behrouz Kamalvandi, a spokesperson for Iran’s Atomic Energy Organization specifically targetted the European signatories of the nuclear deal for not doing enough, but said they still had time to save the agreement.

“If it is important for them to safeguard the accord, they should make their best efforts,” Kamalvandi said. “As soon as they carry out their commitments, things will naturally go back to their original state.”

“There is still time for European countries, but if they want more time it means that they either can’t or don’t want to honor their obligations,” he continued later. “They should not think that after 60 days they will have another 60-day opportunity.”

Tanker Attack

Monday’s announcement comes as tensions between Iran and the U.S. have increasingly escalated in recent weeks.

On Thursday, two tankers were attacked just off the coast of Iran in the Gulf of Oman. The attack caused one of the boats to be set on fire and caused both to be set adrift. A few hours later, U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo accused Iran of attacking the tankers.

In a press conference, Pompeo said attacks were part of a “campaign” of “escalating tension” by Iran. “It is the assessment of the United States that the Islamic Republic of Iran is responsible for the attacks,” he said.

U.S. officials also later claimed that Iran had launched a missile at a U.S.-operated drone surveying the area after the attack.

Pompeo did not immediately provide any evidence for Iran launching the attack, but later on Thursday, U.S. Central Command released a video they claimed showed Iran’s Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC) removing an unexploded mine from one of the tankers hit by explosions.

While the administration of Donald Trump, backed by Saudi Arabia, believed that the video clearly proved the IRGC was guilty, others were not so sure.

Speaking to reporters on Friday, Germany’s Foreign Minister Heiko Maas said, “The video is not enough. We can understand what is being shown, sure, but to make a final assessment, this is not enough for me.”

Additionally, the Japanese operator of one of the ships that was attacked also disputed the U.S government’s claim. In a statement, the president of the company that operates the ship, Yutaka Katada, said he did not believe there was a mine attached to the ship at all.

“I do not think there was a time bomb or an object attached to the side of the ship,” Katada said. “Our crew said that the ship was attacked by a flying object.”

Iran for its part has strongly denied the allegations. Iran’s Foreign Minister Javad Zarif condemned the accusations in a tweet, referring to the incident as “sabotage diplomacy.”

Escalating Tensions

The incident on Thursday and the U.S. response is only part of increased tensions between the U.S. and Iran.

It is not even the first tanker attack that the U.S. has blamed on Iran. Last month, four tankers were attacked off the coast of the United Arab Emirates, which is close to the Gulf of Oman. Again, the U.S. was quick to blame Iran but did not provide any evidence, and again, Iran denied the accusation.

Over the last few months, numerous world leaders have come forward and called for the U.S. and Iran to de-escalate the situation, with many fearing the situation would lead to an all-out war.

Multiple European governments and leaders have called on the Trump administration to exercise “maximum restraint.”

Response

Currently, it remains unclear what will happen next. In an interview with Fox & Friends on Sunday, Pompeo indicated that the U.S. had not ruled out military action.

“The United States is going to make sure that we take all actions necessary, diplomatic and otherwise, to achieve that outcome,” he said. In a separate interview with CBS, Pompeo also said the U.S. might tighten sanctions on Iran in response to the country ramping up its nuclear program.

According to reports, Pentagon officials are considering tactical responses to the attacks, including deploying as many as 6,000 Navy, Air Force, and Army personnel to the Persian Gulf.

Last month, National Security Advisor John Bolton announced that the U.S. was deploying an aircraft carrier strike group and Air Force bombers to the Middle East in an effort to counter Iran.

At the same time, many are skeptical that Trump would send troops to directly engage Iran. Trump has repeatedly said he does not want a war in the Middle East.

During an interview with Fox & Friends on Friday, Trump said Iran did attack the tankers, but also said he was not looking for war. He even went as far as to say he wanted engagement with Iranian leadership.

“I’m ready when they are,” Trump said. “Whenever they’re ready, it’s O.K. In the meantime, I’m in no rush.”

See what others are saying: (The New York Times) (Al Jazeera) (CNN)

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Brazil’s Supreme Court Votes to Criminalize Homophobic Acts

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  • Brazil’s Supreme Court has ruled in favor of criminalizing homophobia under current legislation until Congress creates a law that specifically addresses the issue.
  • Eight of the 11 justices voted Thursday to treat violent acts and other crimes against gay and transgender people like racism, which was made a crime in Brazil in 1989 with prison sentences of up to five years.
  • President Jair Bolsonaro criticized the justices last month when it became clear that they would likely vote in favor of the move, and he suggested that it was time to appoint an evangelical Christian.

The Vote

Brazil’s Federal Supreme Court voted Thursday to criminalize acts of hate and discrimination against the LGBT community.

Eight of the 11 justices voted in favor of the move arguing that Congress failed to fulfill its constitutional duty by passing similar legislation. According to the Wall Street Journal, the country’s constitution allows the high court to make these types of moves in the event that lawmakers fail to take action.

For now, any acts of violence or other crimes against gay or transgender people will be judged under current antiracism law until Congress passes a specific law that addressed the LGBT community. Racism was made a crime in Brazil in 1989 with prison sentences of up to five years.

“Sexual orientation and gender identity are essential to human beings, to the self-determination to decide their own life and seek happiness,” Justice Gilmar Mendes said, according to the court’s Twitter account.

It may take some time for Congress to act further. In 2011, the Supreme Court ruled unanimously that every state should recognize civil unions between same-sex couples. However, Congress has yet to pass legislation for those unions.

Bolsonaro’s Position

President Jair Bolsonaro, who took office in January, criticized the court last month when it became clear that most justices would rule in favor of criminalizing homophobia. He argued that the court was overstepping and suggested it was time to appoint an evangelical Christian to the Supreme Court.

Bolsonaro himself has been criticized for what many consider a long history of homophobic, racist, and sexist comments.  The social conservative won the October election last year, promising to overturn years of liberal social policies. Many LGBT rights groups feared that he would try to roll back gay rights if elected.

The court’s decision “is a step forward, but it won’t make much of a difference unless we improve education and change attitudes,” Claudia Regina, president of the LGBT Pride Parade Association of São Paulo told the Journal.

“There’s been a subtle worsening of attitudes” since Bolsonaro was elected, she said, adding that he “is encouraging this, indirectly. He inspires his followers to behave this way.”

According to the rights group the Grupo Gay da Bahia, 420 LGBT people were killed across Brazil in 2018 and at least 141 others have been killed so far this year. On top of that, Brazil leads the world in transgender homicides with 171 in 2017, according to the organization Transgender Europe.

See what others are saying: (Reuters) (The Wall Street Journal) (The Independent)

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