- 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)
Police Arrest Hong Kong Man for Booing Chinese National Anthem
The man’s boos were launched during the first time the Chinese national anthem had ever been played for a Hong Kong athlete at the Olympics.
Instulting the Anthem
Hong Kong authorities announced Friday that a man was arrested for allegedly booing and “insulting” the Chinese national anthem while watching the Olympics on Monday.
The unnamed 40-year-old, who identified himself as a journalist, was allegedly watching the Olympics fencing medal ceremony for Hong Konger Edgar Cheung at a local mall. When the anthem began playing, he allegedly began booing and chanted “We are Hong Kong!” while waving a British Hong Kong Colonial flag.
The man’s actions were particularly noteworthy because it was the first time the Chinese national anthem had been played for a Hong Kong athlete in the Olympics. Hong Kongers compete at the Games under a separate committee called Hong Kong, China. The last time a Hong Konger won gold was in 1996 for windsurfing, at which time the British anthem of “God Save the Queen” was played.
Concerns for Freedom of Speech
The man is suspected of breaking the relatively new National Anthem Ordinance, which was passed in June 2020, and has a penalty of up to three years in prison and fines of $6,000 for anyone who publicly and intentionally insults the anthem. The law mirrors one in mainland China, but it has faced considerable scrutiny from increasingly persecuted pro-democracy lawmakers in Hong Kong.
They argue that it tramples the right to free speech, which is supposed to be enshrined in the city’s Basic Law. Hong Kong police, however, say that’s not the case and claim that his actions breach common restraints on freedom of speech. Senior Superintendent Eileen Chung said that his actions were “to stir up the hostility of those on the scene and to politicize the sport.”
Police issued a warning that it would investigate reports of others joining his chants or violating the separate National Security law passed last year.
This incident isn’t the only case of alleged politicization of the Games. Badminton player Angus Ng was accused by a pro-Beijing lawmaker of making a statement by sporting a black jersey with the territory’s emblem. The imagery was very similar to the black-and-white Hong Kong flag used by anti-government protesters.
Ng countered that he wore his own clothes to the event because he didn’t have sponsorships to provide jerseys and he wasn’t authorized to print the emblem on a jersey himself.
See what others are saying: (Inside) (Al Jazeera) (CNN)
Canadian Catholic Priest Says Residential Schools Survivors Lied About Abuse
The Roman Catholic Church is facing considerable backlash across Canada for its treatment of indigenous peoples in the residential school system, along with its subsequent efforts to downplay the problem.
Priest Sparks Outrage
Father Rheal Forest was put on forced leave Wednesday following remarks he made over a weeks-long period starting July 10 in which he doubted victims of the country’s infamous residential school system.
Residential schools were a system of schools largely for indigenous children that were mostly run by the Catholic Church with federal government funding. The schools were notoriously cruel and long faced allegations that children had been abused or went missing under their care.
To date, over 1,300 unmarked graves have been found at four former residential schools across Canada, a fraction of the over 130 that used to exist.
Forest, of the St. Boniface archdiocese in Winnipeg, was standing in for a couple of weeks while the main priest at his church was away. During that time, Forest told parishioners that victims of the residential schools, particularly those sexually abused, had lied.
“If [the victims] wanted extra money, from the money that was given to them, they had to lie sometimes — lie that they were abused sexually and, oop, another $50,000,” he said.
“It’s kind of hard if you’re poor not to lie.”
In that same sermon, he also added that during his time with Inuit groups in the north of the country, most had allegedly said they appreciated the residential school system. Instead, he said they blamed any abuses on lay people working at the facilities rather than priests or nuns.
Forest’s comments drew a ton of backlash, prompting the archdiocese to place Forest on leave. A spokesperson for the archdiocese said that the institution “completely disavow” Forest’s comments, adding, “We very much regret the pain they may have caused to many people, not least of course Indigenous people and, more specifically, survivors of the Residential School system.”
Overall, the archdiocese has attempted to apologize to indigenous communities for its part in the residential school system, with Archbishop Albert Legatt saying in a video that the way forward was by “acknowledging, apologizing, and acting” on terms set by indigenous groups.
Church Allegedly Kept Money From Victims
Forest’s views and subsequent dismissal aren’t the only public relations scandal the Roman Catholic Church faces in Canada.
According to documents obtained by CBC News, the Church spent over a decade avoiding paying out money to survivors per a 2005 agreement. At the time, it, alongside the protestant churches that also ran some residential schools, agreed to pay an amount to victims of the schools in the tens of millions.
Instead, according to an internal summary of 2015 court documents, the Catholic Church spent much of that money on lawyers, administration, a private fundraising company, and unapproved loans. It seems that some of this was technically legal, such as a promise to give tens of millions back via “in-kind” services; however, there was no audit completed to confirm that these services actually happened or to prove the alleged value of the services. This led to doubts about whether or not they were done effectively.
The Catholic Church was unique among the signatory churches in the 2005 agreement with its efforts to avoid paying victims. All of the other denominations paid out their sums many years before without issues.
While priests such as Father Forest have supported the Church, there has been internal backlash. Father André Poilièvre, a Saskatoon priest and Order of Canada recipient, said the Church’s actions are “scandalous” and “really shameful,” adding, “It was a loophole. It might be legal, but it’s not ethical.”
With these latest revelations, widespread anger at the Church has triggered allegations that indigenous groups are behind a spree of church burnings across the country.
The entire situation is likely going to continue to smolder as a government commission set up to investigate the schools estimates there will be thousands of more unmarked graves found across Canada.
See what others are saying: (CBC News) (The Guardian) (CTV News)
Tokyo Sets Back-to-Back Records for Number of Daily COVID-19 Cases
Some positive cases were detected among people attending the Olympic Games, including a handful of athletes.
Cases Going Up
The Tokyo Olympic Games found itself in more controversy on Wednesday after Tokyo experienced a record number of daily COVID-19 cases for the second day in a row.
On Tuesday, the city recorded 2,848 new cases of the virus, passing the 2,500 daily new case threshold for the first time since the pandemic began. Then on Wednesday, it shattered the record again with 3,177 new COVID-19 cases.
At least 155 of those new cases were detected among people attending the Games, including a handful of athletes, which contrasts Prime Minister Suga Yoshihide’s promise that the Olympics wouldn’t be hit with the virus. The spike in new cases has largely been attributed to the delta-variant, something that many countries are dealing with around the world.
Nishimura Yasutoshi, a Japanese economic minister, told a parliamentary panel this week that COVID-19 cases are expected to continue rising for at least a few days. He also explained that many people may have delayed getting tested last week due to holidays, therefore inflating total daily new case numbers.
Governors in prefectures around Tokyo have moved to ask the government for states-of-emergency, which Tokyo is already under.
Doubts About Government Response
The prime minister said in a press conference on Tuesday that “the government has secured a new drug that reduces the risk of serious illness by 70 percent,” adding, “we have confirmed that this drug will be used thoroughly from now on.”
However, he never actually mentioned what drug he was referencing.
“In any case, under these circumstances, I would like to ask the people to avoid going out unnecessarily and to watch the Olympics and Paralympics on TV,” Suga continued.
He also stressed that canceling the Olympics amid the outbreak was completely out of the question, although there have been continued calls from the public and opposition lawmakers for just that.
Beyond refusing to cancel the Games, Suga is facing backlash for refusing to enact strict state-of-emergency protocols. Currently, the measures in Tokyo are almost all voluntary and consist of asking people to stay home, along with requesting restaurants that serve alcohol to completely close and telling all others to shut down by 8 p.m.