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Russian parliament votes to restrict internet, speech and NGOs

Human rights groups have condemned measures to criminalize slander and label some NGOs "foreign agents."

Sergei udaltsov 2012 07 13Enlarge
Police detain opposition leader Sergei Udaltsov during an opposition rally this month. Critics of the new bills say they are aimed at restricting future protests. (Olga Maltseva/AFP/Getty Images)

MOSCOW, Russia — Parliament voted on Friday to recriminalize slander and libel the same day it passed a bill that would label NGOs receiving non-Russian funding "foreign agents." 

The measures dealt a double blow to opposition activists who say the authorities are moving to stifle dissent ahead of protests planned for the fall. 

They came two days after the ruling United Russia party rushed another bill regulating the internet through the lower house, which drew condemnation from online giants such as Google and spooked Russia's vibrant online community, which fears the legislation may pave the way toward internet censorship.

United Russia members say the internet bill targets sites that display child pornography or promote suicide and drug abuse.

But young, middle-class activists who have organized unprecedented street protests against President Vladimir Putin, largely via social networking sites, say the bill's main backers have a different agenda.

"Given the realities in Russia, it's clear the aim is to create a lever to apply pressure on the only truly free channel of information in Russia actively used by the opposition," said Roman Goldshtein, a 23-year-old, iPhone-toting student who says he regularly attends Moscow's opposition protests.

The bill would enable the government to blacklist sites, and obliges site owners and providers to close them.

The United States condemned the measure.

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Wikipedia's Russian version went offline on Tuesday in protest.

Its site displayed only its logo in Cyrillic struck out by a thick black line and the message "Imagine a world without free information."

Yandex, Russia's most popular search engine, joined in by saying the bill "lays the ground for possible misuse and raises numerous questions from internet users and company representatives." Google followed on Thursday, saying the bill "threatens [internet] users' access to legal sites."

"They announced this law quickly and passed it quickly," said Oleg Kozyrev, an internet expert and prominent blogger. "It shows there was no desire to create an instrument to deal with negative phenomena — they wanted to make a legal basis for closing unwelcome sites. It’s simple as that."

On Friday, the last day before parliament’s summer recess, legislators made slander and libel punishable by fines of up to $150,000 less than a year after it was decriminalized under former President Dmitry Medvedev.

The legislation singles out libel against judges, investigators and prosecutors.

Pro-Kremlin deputies also approved a bill that would require NGOs receiving foreign funding to meticulously detail their finances and identify themselves as "foreign agents" in any publications or for services they provide.

Critics say the term implies espionage and reinforces accusations by Putin and state media that foreign-financed organizations are trying to foment revolution in Russia. It has been criticized by the United States and European Union.

All three bills must still pass the upper house — usually a formality — before being signed into law by Putin.

Opposition bloggers joked on Twitter using the tag #клевещипокаможно "slander while you still can." Another tag, #порапереезжать, "it's time to move," became the second-most popular on Russia's Twitter.

The three bills are seen as part of a broader crackdown on the opposition protest movement after Putin was sworn in for a third term as president in May, a day after violent clashes between protesters and police.

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Fines for demonstrators taking part in unsanctioned rallies have been dramatically increased since then, and investigators have raided the homes of opposition leaders, some of whom are under criminal investigation.

Anti-Kremlin protesters, who are concentrated in large cities and rely on online media for news, fear the internet bill will do more to enable the authorities to target opposition leaders who communicate with the public through blogs and social media.

An estimated 36 percent of the population uses the internet every day, and the number is growing rapidly.

However, blogger Kozyrev said the Russian internet is too widely used and developed for the authorities to be able to enact China-style censorship.

"I don't think this law will be used as it is in China, where there is a total blackout," he said. "Instead it will be used to target reprisals against certain media and bloggers, to shut down blogs or certain media for a time, and to pressure unwanted websites."

http://www.globalpost.com/dispatch/news/regions/europe/120713/russia-Putin-internet-censorship