Only A Few 'Likes' For Putin's Softening Of Controversial Meme Law

MOSCOW -- In 2016, teacher Yevgenia Chudnovets from Kurgan was sentenced to five months in jail for reposting on social media a child-abuse video that eventually led police to catch and convict two people.

In 2015, Polina Petruseva was fined 1,000 rubles ($18) for posting a World War II-era photograph of her apartment building in then-occupied Smolensk showing a Nazi flag and several uniformed Nazi officers. Disseminating "Nazi insignias" was considered an incitement to ethnic enmity.

Cases such as these, which number in the hundreds, prompted widespread complaints that there was something fundamentally wrong with the law. Many people have faced stiff fines or even jail terms simply for liking or sharing memes.

In response, Russian President Vladimir Putin submitted to parliament on October 3 amendments to Criminal Code Article 282, which outlaws acts or statements that incite ethnic, religious, or other forms of hatred or public discord. Under the president's proposal, a first-time violation would be considered an administrative offense punishable by fines, community service, or short jail terms.

But reaction to Putin's initiative has ranged from mixed to skeptical, with rights activists saying the government still has plenty of tools to keep a lid on political dissent and freedom of expression.

"It is good that the president looked into the matter and personally understood the absurdity of many of the cases," Duma Deputy and journalist Sergei Shargunov told RFE/RL's Russian Service. "Now I hope that cases that have already been filed will be reconsidered." Shargunov said he remains in favor of completely repealing Article 282 because people "shouldn't be punished for their words or thoughts but only for their actions."

'The Very Minimum'

Putin's proposal, which is likely to sail through a legislature dominated by the Kremlin's United Russia party, comes just weeks after the Russian Supreme Court significantly narrowed the application of Article 282. On September 20, the court ruled that merely liking or reposting material on the Internet does not alone constitute a crime. It ordered lower courts to take into consideration the "actual motives" behind such actions before ruling them criminal.

Nonetheless, the changes are far from a clear-cut endorsement of freedom of expression.

"I think that Putin's initiative is the very minimum of all the possible outcomes of this discussion," said Aleksandr Verkhovsky, head of the Sova legal-consulting center. "The discussion was actually much broader and even went beyond Article 282. But all of that was ignored."

Damir Gainutdinov, an expert with the Agora human rights group, agrees, saying the changes have been introduced to "minimize risks."

"In recent months, society has been rather alarmed by a series of criminal prosecutions that are clearly absurd, for likes and reposts, and they had to react somehow to keep on top of this," he said. "They are showing that the authorities are aware of what is happening and share the public's concerns."

But Putin's initiative "does not demonstrate any desire to end the impunity [of prosecutors]," he added. "We can't really talk of a softening of the law, but rather just the introduction of a small complication in the process of launching a criminal case. Article 282 has been the most popular one to date, but there are other so-called antiextremism articles that have not been included in this reform."

He notes that there is very little distinction between Article 282, which bans incitement to ethnic or religious hatred, and Article 280, which outlaws "public calls for extremist activities." Article 280 is the preferred enforcement vehicle of the Federal Security Service (FSB), Gainutdinov added.

'Pure Cannibals'

Vladimir Yegorov, an activist with the liberal Yabloko party from Tver Oblast, illustrates the point. He was originally convicted under Article 282 for antigovernment posts he wrote on social media and was given a two-year suspended sentence.

But when a court overturned that ruling, he was immediately charged a second time under Article 280, which he describes as equally "broad and vague."

Valentin Sokolov spent eight months in prison after being convicted under Article 282 and was released after completing his term in August.

"On one hand, we should be glad that they decided to soften the law," Sokolov told RFE/RL. "On the other hand, there really isn't anything to be glad about because the people haven't changed. In the law-enforcement and prison systems you find mostly pure cannibals -- in fact, you get the impression that they are selected [for those jobs] because they are cannibals."

"They conducted all their searches in my apartment at dawn when we were all asleep," he recalled. "They drilled through my door. I have twins and one of the boys to this day has a stammer. They didn't find anything because the whole case was fabricatedÔÇŽ. They charged me under that article simply to prevent me from participating in the elections." Sokolov had intended to run for a local-government position in Kolomna with the nationalist Rodina party.

'Civic Death Sentence'

Irina Khrunova, a lawyer with Agora, sees Putin's amendments as a positive development. But she warns that it remains, nonetheless, unpleasant to "attract the attention of law enforcement" and she anticipates a significant increase in administrative sentences after Article 282 is revised.

"People think of administrative charges as a minor violation, but lawyers understand how dangerous they can be and what the consequences can be," she added.

Yabloko activist Yegorov says it is clear that Russia is not moving in the direction of greater freedom of expression or political participation as Putin's popularity is falling because of the government's much-reviled move to raise retirement ages.

"Although they have softened one article," he noted, "they will, as they are already doing, charge more people under Article 280 and that means putting them on the government list of suspected extremists. That is de facto a civic death sentence. No bank accounts. No credit cards. No loans. No mortgages. It is practically the same as having the mark of Cain on your forehead."

Written by RFE/RL Senior Correspondent Robert Coalson based on reporting from Moscow by RFE/RL's Russian Service correspondents Lyubov Chizhova and Yelizaveta Mayetnaya.