Duma Bill Would Re-Criminalize “Libel”

2006 Russia propaganda poster: "Journalist! Raise the professional quality of your work" Source: Plakaty.ruFrom Gazeta.ru:

A new piece of legislation is in the works in the Russian State Duma to return the statute against “libel” to the Federal Criminal Code. The bill was initiated by former Justice Minister Pavel Krasheninnikov, who is generally considered to be one of the more liberal members of the ruling United Russia party, and introduced to the Duma by his party colleague, journalist Aleksandr Khinshtein. According to Gazeta.ru, the bill is targeted towards “certain individuals,” guessed by some to include human rights advocate Oleg Orlov and blogger Aleksei Navalny. As far as the advocate is concerned, it’s time to start worrying about the return of Stalin’s notorious Article 58, under which many political prisoners were convicted during Soviet times.

Krasheninnikov, who heads the Duma committee on civil, criminal, arbitration and procedural legislation, called for deputies to examine one of the legislative regulations introduced as part of former President Dmitri Medvedev’s modernization initiatives. The deputy’s bill would return the article on libel into the Criminal Code, and the fines currently associated with the article on “insult,” which is only an administrative offense, will be stiffly increased.

“We believe that nothing good has come from the decriminalization of the article on libel and therefore we’re introducing a bill that will criminalize this element,” Interfax quoted Krasheninnikov as saying.

Khinshtein then wrote on his Twitter account that the project had been introduced into the Duma. “Together with a group of colleagues I’m introducing an amendment to establish cr(iminal) liability for libel: Ar. 129 CC RF. Believed and believe it’s annulment to have been a mistake,” he wrote. Khinshtein also told Gazeta.ru that aside from himself, Krasheninnikov, and United Russia deputy Irina Yarovaya, no other parliamentarians have signed onto the bill yet.

Gazeta.ru was not able to get in touch with Krasheninnikov on Friday, but he justified the bill to Interfax:

“The decriminalization of the article on libel that was carried out as part of the liberalization of criminal policy and instituted an administrative fine of up to three thousand rubles for various libelistic falsifications, or to put it differently, for spreading false information about a person, has led to a situation where certain citizens are accusing people with impunity of the most terrible of sins, calling them bandits, terrorists, and corruptioners.”

Krasheninnikov did not specify who he was concretely referring to, but Gazeta.ru speculates that his description implies at least two well-known figures: head of the Memorial human rights society Oleg Orlov, and oppositionist blogger Aleksei Navalny. In a highly publicized case, Orlov was charged with libeling Chechen President Ramzan Kadyrov, who the former accused of bearing responsibility for the murder of human rights worker Natalya Estemirova. Orlov’s remarks came long before the libel article was removed from the Criminal Code, but after it was decriminalized, the case against Orlov was closed.

For his part, Navalny is credited with authoring a popular moniker for United Russia – “the Party of Swindlers and Thieves.” Political analysts have been unanimous in assigning this nickname with significant responsibility for the party’s marked fall during the December 2011 election. Party members were unsuccessful in their attempts to bring the blogger to court over the matter. Recently, Navalny revealed a document showing a parallel between rising housing and utilities costs in certain regions and United Russia’s election results. The document, which includes the party’s logo, shows a higher growth in those costs in the regions where United Russia had poorer results. Regional party members are currently working on filing complaints to law enforcement in response, according to United Russia’s Saratov regional press service. Indeed, Navalny has found himself the target of an all-out manhunt in recent times: earlier this week, Investigative Committee head Aleksander Bastrykin publicly castigated a subordinate for closing a case against the blogger involving the company Kirovles.

Before it was decriminalized, the libel article was seen as the “journalism” article – civil servants and party functionaries often used it to settle scores with the press. Indeed, in 2009 Russia took first place for the number of criminal suits against members of the media. At the time, the Center for Journalism in Extreme Situations recorded 60 cases per year (for libel as well as other criminal statutes often used against journalists) and the number was growing. In 95% of cases against journalists, the plaintiffs were civil servants or parliamentary deputies.

Judging by Krasheninnikov’s statement, the new libel statute will be tougher than the first. Those found guilty will face up to five years in jail, as opposed to three years under the old one.

Moreover, the bill covers a gradation of types of libel based on their level of “public danger.” The harshest sentence will be given to those convicted of making false accusations that someone has committed particularly gruesome crimes, particularly ones sexual in nature.

Fines for the administrative statute on insults will also be significantly increased, but the statute itself will not be moved into the criminal code, Krasheninnikov added. Whereas the crime was previously punishable by a fine of 1-3 thousand rubles, the new bill would put it at 30-50 thousand rubles.

The libel and insult articles were both decriminalized in December 2011, and went into effect on January 1, 2012. The legislative project involved the liberalization of a whole range of criminal offenses, at the behest of then-President Medvedev and with the help of Justice Minister Aleksandr Konovalov.

Krasheninnikov – one of Konovalov’s predecessors in the post of justice minister – at the time welcomed the liberalization effort, calling it “without a doubt, timely and relevant to today’s demands.”

Khinshtein, who before his election to the State Duma was a scandalously notorious journalist, told Gazeta.ru that he always saw the decriminalizations as a mistake. “There is criminal liability for libel in the laws of every country in the world,” he explained. “There is a distinction between libel and insult. Libel involves intent, which is to say that the person knows that what he’s saying is a lie. The past six months have shown that court practice is not improving.” When asked about the court statistics on the number of people convicted of libel within the Administrative Code over the past six months, Khinshtein unexpectedly responded: “But we don’t have an administrative statute for libel.”

That is not the case: Article 5.60 of the Administrative Code is for “libel,” punishable by a fine of up to 100 thousand rubles.

Human rights advocate Pavel Chikov of the Agora association took a more ironic stance on the bill. “I’d like to remind Krasheninnikov that nothing good came from decriminalizing the article on anti-Soviet agitation and propaganda. Down with libel, let’s have Article 58! [almost four million people were convicted under this article during the Stalin era throughout the Soviet Union – Gazeta.ru] It would be nice to have time to get it back during the spring session,” he quipped.

According to the advocate, Krasheninnikov’s argument that “nothing good has come” from having the libel article in the Administrative Code for the past six months is wholly untenable. “It would be interesting to know about the practice of bringing charges for libel under the frame of the Administrative Code. But I’m guessing that there isn’t any practice,” Chikov said.

The decriminalization of the libel article is not the only Medvedev initiative that has come under reexamination following Vladimir Putin’s return to the presidential chair. In particular, before he was even elected, Putin himself publicly promised to re-institute daylight savings time, which Medvedev had gotten rid of [and which some joked was Medvedev’s only real achievement – theotherrussia.org], and on Friday the State Duma passed the first reading of a bill that would label NGOs that accept international funding as “foreign agents” – under Medvedev, on the other hand, this legislation was in the process of being liberalized.

Khinshtein, however, denies that “Medvedev’s legacy” is being reexamined.

“There is absolutely no need to speak of any revision. We’re talking about concrete, specific things. What kind of revision can we talk about if the legislation is being introduced by leading United Russia deputies?” the deputy insisted.

“The effect is that we’re looking at the practice: admitting that here we were hasty, there we rushed,” he concluded.

Translation by theotherrussia.org