Russian President Vladimir Putin on Monday signed two bills that would make it a crime to publish "fake news" or spread anything that disrespected the government or state officials, according to Russian media outlets.
The legislation makes it illegal to spread information that "exhibits blatant disrespect for the society, government, official government symbols, constitution or governmental bodies of Russia," the Moscow Times reported.
In addition, any unverified information that threatens someone's life, health or property, or incites mass public disorder or danger is also subject to fines, according to CNN. News outlets and others that spread "fake news" online could face fines of up to 1.5 million rubles, which is equivalent to around $23,000, and 15 days in jail for repeat offenders.
Russian news agency TASS reported last week that Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov denied allegations that the bill was an attempt to enforce censorship on individuals and agencies that speak out against the state. He told journalists that the law was necessary to reduce the amount of false news reports and abusive statements.
"This sphere — the sphere of fake news — insults and so on, is under strict regulation in many countries of the world, even in European states. This undoubtedly has to be done in our country."
Russia's prosecutor general will reportedly request the country's media watchdog agency, Roskomnadzor, to restrict access to the any websites found in violation of the laws, TASS reported on Monday.Critics, however, said the bill was a dangerous step toward censorship. A petition signed by more than 100 journalists and many human rights activists said the bill allowed officials to prohibit the distribution of anything they did not like at their sole discretion and block any media websites on the internet.
Maria Snegovaya, adjunct fellow at the Center for European Policy Analysis, told The Washington Post that the law gives governmental agencies dangerously high authority.
"In other words, it significantly expands the repressive power of Russia's repressive apparatus. This may be compared to the Stalin's Troika, a commission of three for express judgment in the Soviet Union during the time of Joseph Stalin who issued sentences to people after simplified, speedy investigations and without a public and fair trial."
Matthew Rojansky, director of the Wilson Center's Kennan Institute, an organization with the mission to improve the American understanding of Russia, wrote in an email to The Post that, while the Russian government had not placed any major constraints on internet freedoms in the past, it did punish those who were critical of it in ways the were more "time-consuming." He said the the new laws make everything more straightforward and simply make it easier for the state to impose penalties.
Rojanksy added that one major consequence of the legislation is that it makes it almost impossible for groups to call for public protests of government activity.
The legislation comes after thousands took to the streets in Moscow earlier in March to protest a bill that would allow the government to route all internet traffic through Russian servers.