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Russia is again at the heart of an international disinformation scandal. Since February, some media have accused Moscow of launching a disinformation campaign about the coronavirus. This accusation is repeated in an internal document of the Foreign Policy arm of the European Union of March 18.
With this news making headlines, it is easy to pass up that the Russian government is also engaged in its own war on disinformation, and its definition of “fake news” depends a lot on everyone's point of view.
As of April 24, according to the Johns Hopkins University map, there were more than 68,000 confirmed cases of coronavirus in Russia. The country is under strict quarantine, but for several weeks Russia was an outlier: it recorded a considerably lower number of deaths than other large countries and an unusually low rate of infection despite the large number of tests being carried out. There has been a lot of speculation about this data, much of which focused on the effectiveness of the analytical equipment used in Russia. As of March 21, the country had only reported 306 confirmed cases when hospitals began to fill with pneumonia cases of unusual severity. “I have the impression that they are lying to us,” exclaimed Anastasia Vasilyeva, head of the country's medical union.
As the pandemic intensified in Russia, some citizens began to doubt official figures. It seems that it was this trend that led President Vladimir Putin to declare on March 4 that the information on thousands of cases in Russia were “falsehoods” probably coming “from abroad” with the intention of creating panic among the population.
Discrepancies over the probable number of cases appear to be the cause of the first high-profile barrage of “false information” during the epidemic in Russia. On March 20, the independent radio station Ekho Moskvy deleted the recording and transcription of a conversation with political scientist Valery Solovey from its website at the request of Roskomnadzor, a Russian entity that monitors the media, which on March 18 had threatened to revoke media licenses or block their websites if they posted “falsehoods” about the coronavirus. Roskomnadzor explained that he had to “remove socially significant misinformation that represented a serious disturbance of public order,” but did not specify the illegal content in the Ekho Moskvy broadcast. It is now believed that what angered the authorities could be Solovey's estimate that the coronavirus had already killed 1,600 in Russia, and his comparison of the Kremlin's management of the crisis with the Soviet Union's response to the Chernobyl nuclear disaster in 1986.
At the same time, an online publication from the city of Magadan also dealt with Roskomnadzor. On March 20, he threatened Govorit Magadan with a hefty fine because of an article claiming that a man suspected of being infected with coronavirus had died in this Russian far eastern city. Although the man's infection was never confirmed, the publication defended his information; As one editor told state media RIA Novosti: “Either the patient was not hospitalized, or he was not suspected of having a coronavirus, or he did not die. All three things happened. ”
The local edition of the leading national newspaper Kommersant reported that 1,000 graves had been prepared for victims of the coronavirus in a single Ufa city cemetery, and on April 12 its editors received the exact same warning: Roskomnadzor demanded the removal of the article. And on April 16, after Elena Milashina, a journalist for Novaya Gazeta, wrote an article about the management of the crisis by the Chechen authorities, the attorney general demanded that this information be withdrawn, citing errors in the data. Milashina later received public threats from Chechen leader Ramzan Kadyrov.
Not only have publications been victims of this trend. Several people have been accused in recent weeks of spreading “socially significant misinformation.” Or by translating the Russian legal language, “false news.”
A law against disinformation
In March 2019, a law came into force in Russia against the publication of “socially significant unreliable information disseminated under the guise of true messages.” This law was passed along with the controversial ban on “offending” the authorities.
The 2019 law turned fake news into an administrative offense punishable by fines. Prosecutors have used it very occasionally and irregularly until March 2020, when the number of lawsuits brought about by this law increased exponentially.
On April 1 of this year, Putin gave another twist to signing a new law that makes fake news a crime. It was accompanied by another law that makes it a crime to violate quarantine measures if their perpetration causes deaths. The penalty for spreading deception can now carry a fine of up to two million rubles (about US $ 27,000) and sentences of up to five years in prison. If disseminating “unreliable information” interferes with the development of essential services, the perpetrator can be fined up to 400,000 rubles (about $ 5,300).
According to Stanislav Seleznev, a lawyer for the human rights NGO Agora International, one of the trouble spots in the law is that authorities must prove that the culprits knew the information was allegedly false before it was distributed. This also allows the authorities to only punish one person instead of the entire chain of people who spread the alleged “false news”, and which had more meaning at each stage.
Seleznev and his colleagues fear that the law will have a crippling effect on freedom of expression. In the nearly three weeks that have passed since it came into effect, RuNet Echo has identified at least six criminal prosecutions for spreading “false news.”
The first of these cases is the accusation of Anna Shushpanova of Saint Petersburg, due to a comment on the page of the Sestroretsk Asset group on April 2, in which she claimed that a coronavirus patient who had a case detected with mild symptoms at a local clinic he was sent home on public transportation. Pavel Yasman, a lawyer for Shushpanova, told Meduza that the case is difficult since it is impossible to prove that Shushpanova “knowingly spread” false news as he believed his source to be entirely reliable. Shushpanova also told Meduza that he believes the case is related to his activism.
However, administrative cases of misinformation continue to be announced. Authorities seem to prefer them, and have opened at least 12 since sanctions tightened on April 1. These cases also worry social media users who doubt official reports of the pandemic.
For example, on April 9, the Saint Petersburg police launched an administrative case against Vladimir Vorontsov, administrator of a group of the popular social network VKontakte called “Police Defender”. The contested publication was a recording from April 2, in which Vorontsov claimed that 70% of people at the St. Petersburg Security Forces institute were infected with coronavirus. According to RBK, Vorontsov claimed to have learned of the accusation against him on RT television, and that when he tried to locate the comment, VKontakte had already deleted it. More recently, a young man was accused of an administrative misconduct on April 21 in Surgut for spreading disinformation after he declared in a social media that it is not the responsibility of local authorities to detain uninfected people for not complying with the self-isolation regime.
It should be noted that similar charges have been brought against social media users who have made more dangerous claims: on April 15, a 35-year-old man from Vladikavkaz was arrested for posting a video online asking citizens to get out. of confinement and insisted that doing so posed no threat to his health.
With COVID-19 present in all minds, it is clear that the Russian authorities cannot apply the new law to all social media users with a controversial opinion about the coronavirus. Probably not his intention: on April 15, the opposition news website MBK-Media reported a document allegedly from the Presidency that advised to apply “demonstratively” the law against disinformation to “a few bloggers” and “to a couple of media. “
Given this, the increasing number of “fake news” cases about coronaviruses, administrative and criminal, has left some RuNet users with a bad taste in the mouth when they see its selective application. When video blogger Alexander Thorn shot a satirical video mocking conspiracy theories about COVID-19, he faced criminal prosecution under the new law:
Друзья, на меня завели УГОЛОВНОЕ ДЕЛО за вчерашний юмористический ролик, в котором я ВЫСМЕИВАЮ теорию заговора о происхождении коронавируса из Российской лаборатории. Причина: фейк о происхождении вируса. @sledcom_rf Вы в адеквате?))) * Спрятался за диван *
– AlexanderThorn (@AlexanderThorn_) April 7, 2020
Friends, I have had a CRIMINAL CASE opened for yesterday's comedy video in which I MOCK at the conspiracy theories that the coronavirus originated in a Russian laboratory. The reason: false news about the origin of the virus. The investigative committee of the Russian Federation, are you right in the head? * Hides behind the sofa *.
The stark contrast to the appointment of Dr. Alexander Myasnikov as head of the State Coronavirus Information Center is evident. Myasnikov, who appears regularly on television as a guest of pro-Kremlin commentator Vladimir Solovyov, made several statements in February and March claiming that the pandemic would not affect Russia, that it was “seasonal” and that it would have been overcome in mid-April. . He then retracted it, and stated that he recommended waiting for group immunity.
Доктор Александр «Русских COVID не берет» Мясников будет представителем штаба по коронавирусу. Скажите, а у вас весь штаб там такой или вы на публику самого здравомыслящего все-таки подобрали? https://t.co/RmviXk1Gk9
– Plushev (@plushev) April 15, 2020
The coronavirus staff representative will be Dr. Meatnikov. He said it was impossible to infect the Russians.
Dr. Alexander: “COVID will not affect the Russians.” Myasnikov will direct the barracks that fight the coronavirus. Is this the case for all your staff or have they chosen the one with the most common sense to communicate with the public?
Myasnikov's duties include leading the fight against fake news related to the coronavirus.
Get safe shut up
Russia is not a rare case in punishing those who spread harmful disinformation that may have pernicious consequences on public health. But as the number of criminal and administrative cases under the new law increases, digital rights activists warn that it is being used too often against those who openly question state declarations of the fight against the virus or official statistics on cases and deaths from coronavirus.
At the moment, anyone who is thinking about spreading his opinion about the pandemic on RuNet will do well to take into account these advice from Sarkis Darbinyan, one of the founders of the Russian NGO Roskomsvoboda, which defends freedom of information on the net. On April 11, he suggested these points in several comments to TV Rain:
- New arrival Даже со ссылкой на слова знакомых;
- Не шутить про коронавирус – у полиции и прокуратуры нет никакого чувства юмора, и за любую шутку, которая не соответствует официальной информации властей, могут привлечь к ответственности;
- Если вы все-таки решили пошутить или выразить свое мнение о коронавирусе, отличное от официального, стоит поставить дисклеймер / хештег с указанием на это. Это объясняется тем, что в таком случае следствию “придется анализировать не только контент, но и комментарий самого пользователя о том, что к его сообщению не надо относиться серьезно.
- Do not post any information that differs from official data provided by operating institutions or other government agencies. Although they are supported by words of acquaintances.
- Don't joke about the coronavirus. Neither the Police nor the prosecutors have a sense of humor: they can hold you responsible for any joke that does not correspond to official information.
- If you still decide to joke about the coronavirus or express in some way an opinion different from that of the official line, you must add a disclaimer or a label that indicates it. This requirement is explained by the fact that researchers will have to analyze not only the content of the illicit message, but also all the comments of users who think whether or not the message should be taken seriously.