Kremlin Signals Putin to Back Law Jailing Critics for Disrespect

(Bloomberg) -- The Kremlin indicated that President Vladimir Putin supports new laws punishing online media for spreading “fake news” or material that insults state officials, the latest move in a broad crackdown on dissent in Russia.

The upper house of parliament passed the legislation Wednesday in a near-unanimous vote, and will now send it to Putin for signing. The measures are “undoubtedly” necessary and “well thought-out,” Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov told reporters.

“One can hardly agree with the view that this is some sort of censorship,” said Peskov, adding that the legislation has precedents in many other countries.

The bills were passed days after thousands of people protested in Moscow against Kremlin plans to establish a “Sovereign internet” that would route online traffic mostly through domestic servers and exchanges. Opponents say the move will enable the authorities to cut off access to services such as Facebook and Google as well as websites containing criticism during periods of political unrest. The Kremlin says the measure is needed to safeguard Russia’s internet against potential U.S. cyber attacks.

Russia has also demanded that social media services store data on Russian users inside the country and give access to encryption keys so that officials can monitor what people are doing online. Telegram, the encrypted messaging app that’s prized by those seeking privacy, lost a bid before Russia’s Supreme Court in March to block security services from getting access to users’ data.

Block Sites

Under the new laws, prosecutors will be able to complain about online publications to the state communications watchdog, which can order access to the websites to be blocked if editors fail to remove the material promptly. Publications found guilty of spreading “unreliable socially-significant information” may face fines of as much as 1.5 million rubles ($23,000).

People will also face fines and up to 15 days in jail, as well as a ban on their publications, if they distribute material expressing “clear disrespect for society, the state, the official state symbols of the Russian Federation, the Constitution of the Russian Federation and bodies exercising state power.”

The measures were criticized during their passage through parliament by the Presidential Human Rights Council, a body whose resolutions are often ignored by the authorities. If Putin signs them into law, the council will monitor their use to stop them becoming an “instrument of repression,” state-run RIA Novosti news service reported, citing political scientist Ekaterina Shulman, who sits on the Kremlin body.

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