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Protesters demonstrate against trash shipments to Arkhangelsk, April 7, 2019

How does Russia actually enforce its ban on ‘fake news’? An activist in Arkhangelsk faces double jeopardy over a post on social media

Source: Meduza
Protesters demonstrate against trash shipments to Arkhangelsk, April 7, 2019
Protesters demonstrate against trash shipments to Arkhangelsk, April 7, 2019
Alexey Lipnitsky / TASS / Scanpix / LETA

On April 25, 2019, police in Arkhangelsk charged an activist with illegally disseminating “fake news,” after she reposted information about a local demonstration against the construction of a new landfill site. Officials say Elena Kalinina spread false information about the rally, knowing that organizers didn’t have the city's permission to march along the demonstration's planned route. The authorities had already fined Kalinina for the same post on the grounds that it incited public participation in an unpermitted protest. Russian law prohibits double jeopardy, and though the rally Kalinina promoted did take place, she nevertheless faces another misdemeanor conviction.

Ahead of protests in April, a woman living in Arkhangelsk reposted information about one planned demonstration

On March 26, Elena Kalinina shared information about protests against the construction of a new landfill site south of Arkhangelsk that were scheduled to take place on April 7. (This content was later removed from her VKontakte page.)

Since last October, activists have staged mass protests against a landfill project south of the city, demanding a stop to the construction work and the resignation of Governor Igor Orlov.

The rally Kalinina promoted took place on April 7, attracting roughly 3,000 people. After the protest ended, some of the activists refused to leave Lenin Square, declaring a sit-in. In the end, police arrested Kalinina and another five demonstrators.

Elena Kalinina / VKontakte

Kalinina was charged with illegally disseminating “fake news,” even though the rally in fact took place

On April 25, police charged Elena Kalinina with the misdemeanor offense of deliberately spreading “fake news” that led to “mass public disorder,” “obstructed traffic” on the Trotsky Prospect Roadway, and “disrupted” public transport.

“My guess is that the logic of the police was that [Elena Kalinina] shared information that the event was permitted by the city,” the activist’s lawyer, Alexey Kuroptev, told Meduza. “This was the organizers’ position, which is supported by the law. Insofar as city officials didn’t do their jobs (they didn’t reach a decision [about rejecting the demonstration] before notifying the organizers within the prescribed period, and offered an unequal alternative venue — in other words, they sent them to the city outskirts, which isn’t suitable to public events), the event — by virtue of clarifications issued by Russia’s Constitutional and Supreme Courts — was considered permitted.

Kalinina was already fined for this post, and punishing her a second time for the same offense is illegal

On April 15, ten days before she was charged with spreading fake news, Kalinina was fined 16,000 rubles ($250) over the same post for inciting the public to join an unpermitted rally.

Russian law prohibits prosecuting someone multiple times for the same offense. Alexey Glukhov, who heads the Golos-sponsored “Protest Apology” project, says charging Kalinina with spreading fake news is redundant and violates Article 50 of the Russian Constitution, Article 14, Paragraph 7, of the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, and Article 4, Protocol 7, of the European Convention on Human Rights.

“Essentially, the same act is being classified twice: as a promotion and as the dissemination of false information,” agrees attorney Alexey Kuroptev. “Honestly, I’ve never seen anything like this. I’d think anyone would understand that you can’t look at a social-media post about a public event as fake news. The police will have a hard time proving that this was deliberately false information.”

Kalinina’s case is the first known enforcement of Russia’s law against “fake news”

According to the website Mediazona, which reports on Russia’s criminal justice system, Elena Kalinina’s case is the first known enforcement of a new law banning the online spread of “fake news.” The law took effect on March 18, 2019, and applies not only to news publications, but also to any socially significant false information that is reported as reliable fact. The prohibition affects both the mass media (including print outlets) and private citizens who share unverified claims online. The legislation does not clarify how information is supposed to be judged for accuracy.

Alexey Kuroptev thinks Kalinina’s case won’t go to court any sooner than two months from now, though he doesn’t rule out that police will close the case before then. “This isn’t the first time the police have tried testing out some new formula in Arkhangelsk. Not so long ago, they added administrative liability for recruiting minors to participate in public protests. I know of [some cases] where there were [conversations] about some activists and these violations, but they never filed any police reports, and the cases never went to court. I think maybe at some moment they realized that they wouldn’t prove anything, and it was pointless. Maybe they’ll decide to give up here, too.”

Kristina Safonova

Translation by Kevin Rothrock

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