Yesterday someone gave me The Wall Street Journal article from Sunday, July 29, 2006, titled "Putin Signs Law Against Slander Of Public Officials" by Alan Cullison. My first response upon reading the title was "I haven't heard of such a law or a bill being passed!" Then I searched the major Russian media outlets and didn't find anything about the bill that would provoke dire concerns about freedom of speech in Russia. That's when I went to the website of the Rossiyskaya Gazeta (Russian newspaper), which publishes all new bills passed by the Duma, and found out that the first thing the WSJ got wrong was the name of the bill. I found more errors when I read on.
First of all, the bill signed by President Putin is named "Federal Law of the Russian Federation from July 27 2006 #148-F3 On the Changes to the articles of 1 and 15 of the Federal Law 'On the Counteraction to the Extremist Activity'". The WSJ piece was primarily concerned with article 1, where the term extremist is legally defined, and article 15, part of which says that the "author of the printed, audio, visual and other materials, designated for the public broadcasting and carrying one or more of the characteristics defined by the article 1 of the Federal Law, should be accountable as a person involved in extremist activity and should be accountable according to applicable laws of the Russian Federation". Setting aside article #15, let's get into the more important controversy surrounding the bill's revisions to article #1, and see what the WSJ reporter missed.
The WSJ writes in its first paragraph, "Russian President Vladimir Putin signed a law making slander of a public official a criminal offense..." To Western readers, this sounds like the Kremlin has just been authorized to prosecute anyone who criticizes the Russian President, Governors, or other elected officials. To understand the legitimate intent of the Duma, let's examine what the new article #15 adds to Russian Federal Law.
The point of article #15 is to legally define "extremism". In brief, extremism is defined as "attempts to forcefully change the constitutional organization and territory of the Russian Federation"; "creating and participating in illegal paramilitary organizations"; "terrorist activities and their public approval"; "exciting religious, racial and national hatred"; "carrying out acts of public disorder, hooliganism, and vandalism based on ideological, political, racial, national and religious hatred, or hatred against a certain social group"; "propaganda claiming the superiority or inferiority of citizens based on their relationship to social, racial, national, religious, or language groups"; "propaganda and public demonstrations of Nazi attributes and symbols, or attributes and symbols similar to Nazi attributes and symbols to the level of their confusion". Article 15 also bans financing and public support of such activities.
This new hate crimes legislation comes as a long-awaited response to numerous racist attacks and Nazi marches in Russia. Such laws banning Nazi and fascist symbols are hardly unique to Russia - most of the legal language on the books today in European Union countries is modeled after the post-WWII German Basic Law, which banned the Nazi Party and its symbols.
The problem is, the Wall Street Journal takes out of this context the ban on "public slander against a person serving in a government position of the subject [state] of the Russian Federation, while he is executing his government duties, or related to their execution, while [slander] connected to accusing the official of executing the acts described in this article, only if the fact of the slander is verified by the court"
What was lost in translation is that this text does not ban criticism of government officials, but only prohibits accusing them without evidence (slander) of being terrorists or supporters of terrorism. The charge of slander must still be proven by evidence presented in court. For the average American to better understand why it might be a very bad idea to allow people to claim that the Governor or Prime Minister of a Russian state is a terrorist, I'd like to give our readers a short example. Let's say one day a journalist claims that Ramzan Kadyrov has a copy of "The Satanic Verses" or the Mohammed cartoons in his office.
Calling the Governor of Texas a terrorist probably won't lead to violence, but deliberately slandering a state official in a country with over 50 nationalities, during a time of rising racial and Islamic fascist sentiment can cause more harm than the ordinary American can imagine. There is already some evidence that fascist parties in Russia have incited violence through the media -- last year the Rodina (Motherland) Party ran a notorious television ad vowing to "rid Moscow of the dirt" that depicted people from the Caucuses as watermelon-eating ruffians. On May Day, a fascist march through downtown Moscow attracted thousands of people.
The second paragraph of the WSJ article says that "Putin's decision to sign the law is a harbinger for an even greater clampdown on Russian society..." The WSJ writer forgets that this bill was written by the Duma (Parliament), approved by the Federal Assembly (Senate) and only then signed by Putin, who currently enjoys a 70% approval rating, according to public opinion polling in Russia.
In paragraph three, Lilia Shevtsova, a political analyst for the Carnegie Foundation in Moscow, says that "He [Putin] is signing a law that erases all ability to criticize the authorities and to have any real discussion in the media..." Our response is: this is not true. Please read more about the number of private media outlets in Russia here, and keep in mind that hundreds of newspapers and online news outlets daily call Putin names and argue that he is too soft a leader.
Paragraph four of the article says that "Since Mr. Putin became president in 2000, the Kremlin has stifled debate within the country by taking over critical media outlets, launching criminal and tax investigations of political opponents..." The problem is, here at Russia Blog, we don't include the oligarchs Berezovsky, Nevzlin and Khodorkovsky in this category of "political opponents". Russia Blog has a different perspective about these "dissidents": that they are criminals who looted state assets, who lost their struggle for money and power to the Kremlin, and that they deserve to be in jail.
Furthermore, the fourth paragraph adds: "The government also enacted a law earlier this year imposing burdensome regulations on non-government organizations." RussiaBlog has written before about the NGO bill -- we found it an understandable response, because it was not acceptable to have Russian political campaigns receiving foreign money (something that is also illegal in the U.S.). It was not good for the Russian Orthodox Church to serve as Russia's leading seller of alcohol and tobacco, or for foreign intelligence services to clumsily infiltrate Western businesses and non-profits, thereby damaging their reputations in Russia. We ask: if Russian NGOs were doing real legitimate charity work, why couldn't Moscow, a city with the world's highest per capita number of billionaires, generate any real philanthropy?
Many Russians will find the sixth paragraph of the WSJ article funny, because it quotes the opinion of a washed-up politician who currently makes his living starring in Pizza Hut commercials - "former Soviet President Mikhail Gorbachev, had urged Mr. Putin to veto the law..." There is a reason Gorbachev stays out of the spotlight in Russia now, and it's because he is widely hated for his achievement of letting the Soviet Union fall apart.
Paragraph eight of the article says: "On Friday, a government agency responsible for monitoring political and religious groups announced that media are forbidden from mentioning the name of a fringe political party, the National Bolshevik Party, headed by the anti-establishment novelist Eduard Limonov." This is false. Number one, the "agency" in question never prohibited use of the name, but asked the press to use a different name for this organization. Number two, this organization does not exist as a legal entity and isn't registered as a political party. Number three, Mr Limonov's novels are filled with an enormous amount of cuss words, and his career includes doing time in prison for public acts of violence.
Paragraph twelve reads: "Civic groups say they already face prosecution for criticizing Kremlin policy in the Caucasus region, where Russian forces have been battling a vicious insurgency of Islamists and Chechen separatists." Russia Blog would like to point out to the WSJ's readers this region has been stable and peaceful for almost half a year, after twelve years of civil war. Today Chechnya has 30,000 new private businesses, and a quarter million refugees have returned home. The elected Chechen prime-minister is enforcing the laws of the Russian Federation, killing the terrorists, building the largest mosque in the world to glorify Islam and the new Chechen government, and supposedly enjoys an 85% approval rating.
The same paragraph continues declaring that "On Friday, the lawyer for a Russian human-rights activist said his client, who has been campaigning against police abuses in the southern Russian province of Dagestan, fled to Ukraine and asked for political asylum to escape prosecution...Osman Boliyev, who heads the Romashka rights group in Dagestan, was accused of participating in rebel activity and of illegally acquiring a gun in 2000". Russia Blog is very skeptical about the Romashka (Camomile) group. For some people like Mr. Boliyev, there's no way left to make money, except by claiming to be a dissident and bilking naÃ¯ve foreign foundations.
Given the state of Russian society and the widespread violence we have seen in the streets and the army, I believe that article 1 and 5 may be necessary to prevent a revival of fascism in Russia. Russians do not want to see their country repeat the mistakes of the Weimar Republic in Germany, which in the name of democracy tolerated people who openly vowed to destroy the constitutional order. I would remind our readers that this is not just a dilemma for Russia, but also for the Western countries. Since 9/11, many Westerners have asked why Al-Muhajiroun and other Islamofascist groups can publicly recruit for the global jihad and vow to replace the constitution with Sharia under the guise of "freedom of speech". As the American Supreme Court Justice Robert Jackson observed in 1949, the Bill of Rights is not a suicide pact, and this is even more true in Russia, a country which has suffered so much from Stalinist, Nazi and Islamofascist extremism in the last century.
As a Russian, I think it is more prudent to act sooner rather than later, while the economy and approval rating of the Kremlin are still high. Russia's oil-fueled prosperity may actually be turning back the forces of desperation and hatred: in the last two years the per capita income of Russians has increased by one-third. Old babushkas who fought Hitler's army, and young Russian businessmen, who want to develop their backward Russian regions have no problem with this bill. They want peace and stability on the streets so that Russians and foreigners alike can feel safe working and investing in Russia.