Six months after Russia adopted a controversial law imposing fines for using electronic media to insult officials or state symbols, the number of people facing charges under the measure is in decline.
“I am sure this is because of the huge public response to these cases,” said Stanislav Seleznyov, a lawyer with the Agora rights monitoring organization who recently authored a report on the law. “And this response stems directly from the fact that this law affects absolutely everyone who posts anything on the Internet besides their closest family matters.”
Under the revision to the Administrative Code, those found guilty of expressing on the Internet “disrespect” toward society, state symbols, or government organs or officials can be fined up to 300,000 rubles ($4,600) or placed in administrative detention for up to 15 days.
Over the last six months, there have been 46 cases filed under the law, the latest reported on October 4.
There have been 28 fines in a total amount of 845,000 rubles ($13,000). Nearly 60 percent of the cases — 26 — involved alleged disrespect targeting President Vladimir Putin, while more than three-quarters of the fines levied under the law stemmed from Putin cases. At least four cases involved alleged disrespect to society, three each to the security agencies and regional governors, and two each to judges, the United Russia party, and local officials.
Seventeen of the cases were dismissed.
Kirill Poputnikov of Yaroslavl, a city northeast of Moscow, was one of the first to fall victim to the new law when it came into effect on April 1. He posted a photograph of some graffiti directing an expletive at Putin.
“I posted the photograph on Sunday (March 31),” Poputnikov told RFE/RL in early April. “On Monday evening, I got a phone call…. They asked me to come to their office at my convenience to give an explanation. The man introduced himself — name, surname, and rank. Today, on my way to work, I stopped in and met with him. He asked all the standard questions…. He asked where I was going when I took the photo and what time it was. He asked me my reason for posting it and I said I wanted to draw attention to this act of vandalism…. He didn’t ask me to delete it.”
Poputnikov was later fined 30,000 rubles ($460) for his post.
Despite the initial flurry of cases in the days and weeks after the law was passed, it has been applied much more sparingly in recent months.
One of the reasons for the authorities’ restraint, lawyer Seleznyov said, was the so-called Streisand effect, in which attempts to constrain the spread of information themselves prompt increased attention to that very information. The phenomenon was named after American singer and actress Barbra Streisand, whose attempt to suppress the publication of photographs of her home in 2003 backfired.
“The application of the law meant that any tiny case of ‘disrespect’…produced a lot of attention,” Seleznyov told RFE/RL. “The Streisand effect played a role.”
In several cases, insults aimed at Putin were reproduced as memes that continue to spread through the Russian Internet.
“We expect the fulfillment of Putin’s statement during his Direct Line [call-in question-and-answer program] on June 20, when he said he’d look into the application of the law,” Seleznyov said. “If they conclude that it isn’t worthwhile attracting attention to negative statements about the president and that the law is having the completely wrong effect, then they will stop applying this law.”
However, it remains on the books and is a serious potential threat to almost any Russian. In the four completed cases in which “society” was purportedly disrespected, Seleznyov noted, the judges did not even bother to explain the essence of the insult.
“In these cases, the judges did not say specifically what they were punishing the defendants for,” he said, noting that one notorious case involved a young woman who was fined for posting a video of herself dancing at a war memorial in Bryansk. “In these cases, there is no text, nothing concrete, that could be identified as offensive. In the rulings, it was said that the defendant ‘demonstrated disrespect to society with their utterance.’ But there was no legal or linguistic evaluation of any such utterance.”
“The law is maximally vague,” he concluded. “Any citizen can be punished for an utterance at practically any time.”
In addition, the Agora report noted that one-quarter of the cases were based on a denunciation from a member of the public.
“The completely nonspecific, completely vague formulation of the law allows it to be used for, among other things, settling personal accounts,” Seleznyov said. “Four cases on our list appear to be exactly this situation.”
He added that rights activists are optimistic that they will find an ally against the law in the European Court of Human Rights (ECHR). Spain and Turkey have similar laws, he said, and “in most cases the ECHR rules that the right of freedom of speech has been violated.”
So far, he said, nine of the Russian cases have passed through all domestic avenues of appeal without being overturned.
“All nine of those cases have already been sent to the ECHR in Strasbourg,” he said.
Written by RFE/RL senior correspondent Robert Coalson based on reporting by RFE/RL Russian Service correspondent Mark Krutov