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Just say no Meduza breaks down the potential fallout from Russia’s draft law on ‘educational activity’

Source: Meduza
Sergey Fadeichev / TASS

On March 16, the Russian State Duma adopted the third and final reading of amendments to the education law, which introduced the concept of “educational activity.” Members of the academic community and those involved in popular education initiatives have actively opposed these changes and are continuing to do so, even now. However, lawmakers have refused to listen to criticism of the bill — in fact, they adopted the original version of the document. Now, all that remains is for the Federation Council to approve the legislation and for the president to sign it into law. Meduza explains why it would be best if they decided not to greenlight the legislation.

1. The legislation puts any and all dissemination of knowledge under state control

The legislation defines “educational activity” as follows: “Activities carried out outside formal academic programs with the intention of disseminating knowledge, experience, the formation of skills, value systems, or competence for the purpose of a person’s intellectual, spiritual and moral, creative, physical, and (or) professional development, in order to satisfy a person’s educational needs and interests.” However, this doesn’t include activities that take place in schools, universities, or other educational institutions. Since the legislation doesn’t contain any definitions for “knowledge,” “experience,” “value systems,” and so forth, nearly anything can fall under it — from exercise videos to media articles. And “falling under it” means having to obey the rules set out by the government. In other words, the state becomes the sole regulator of “education.”

2. It will be nearly impossible to influence the regulation of ‘educational activities.’ The legislation essentially gives the government emergency powers.

The amendments are drafted in such a way that everything is at the mercy of the government. In a sense, anyone deemed an “educator” will find themselves in an even more vulnerable position than ordinary teachers and university professors. While the latter are subject to the entire law “On Education” (a set of relatively predictable rules), the government will now be able to change the “rules of the game” for “educators” at its own discretion. Given how many people fall under the amendments, it’s fair to say that the State Duma is endowing the government with emergency powers (normally, if such a broad sphere of activities is being regulated, this involves separate laws). And this practice is alarming in and of itself. 

3. It could easily lead to YouTube videos and public lectures getting banned

One can imagine three possible scenarios for applying the legislation:

  1. The government may check “educational activity” for compliance with the laws
  2. The government will start issuing licenses for “educational activity” — and some people won’t be given them
  3. The government will want to license not only the activity as such, but also many, if not all, of the materials an “educator” releases. In essence, this constitutes prior censorship.

In the latter two scenarios, one can easily assume that the authorities will start blocking “unlicensed” content or, in various ways, stop offline events without licenses from taking place.

4. Even a liberal interpretation of the legislation doesn’t offer any guarantees. Popularizers of the humanities are particularly at risk.

An explanatory note to the bill directly states that it’s goal is to combat “anti-Russian forces” — in particular, “propaganda measures” with foreign backing aimed at the “discreditation of Russia’s state policy, the revision of history, and undermining of the constitutional order.”

The legislation itself may appear to use somewhat softer phrasing. Indeed, it prohibits the use of educational activities “to incite social, racial, national, or religious hatred” and “to propagate the exceptionalism, superiority, or inferiority of citizens on the basis of social, racial, national, religious, or linguistic affiliation, or their attitude to religion.” However, all of these prohibitions are already contained in other laws, which is why many critics called the amendments generally unnecessary.

On the other hand, “educators” are also prohibited from communicating “false information about the historical, national, religious, and cultural traditions of peoples” and “inducing actions that contradict the constitution.” Obviously, government officials will be the ones to decide what is and isn’t accurate, and this decision making is unlikely to rely on the latest academic breakthroughs. As a result, popularizers of the humanities are under a particular threat. 

5. It also affects school and universities. Bringing in foreign professors will be more difficult, as will studying abroad.

The legislation’s entry into force will impact academics immediately. All educational institutions signing contracts with foreign citizens will be obliged to request permission from the federal authorities first. 

Astrophysicist Sergey Popov, who initiated a petition opposing the legislation, told Meduza that this is a “very complicated procedure” that “immediately impacts all types of cooperation.” It may even lead to the closure of international schools, for example, if the additional red tape makes it too difficult to bring in foreign lecturers, he warned. 

International exchange programs involving Russian universities sending their students to study abroad will also require additional approval. 

6. It’s too late to change the legislation. But the Federation Council and the president can be urged to reject it.

The State Duma adopted the legislation in all three readingw and it has thus acquired legal force, but theoretically it could still be rejected by the Federation Council or go unsigned by the president. “Our immediate goal is to achieve a public discussion of this draft law within the Federation Council’s relevant committee,” Sergey Popov told Meduza. Civil society activist Mikhail Lobanov is urging Russians to email the upper house and urge them to shoot down the legislation. The way he sees it, this has the potential to yield real benefits given the fact that all of the parliamentary factions, with the exception of the ruling United Russia party, voted against the bill unanimously. This means that there’s no consensus on this issue — not even within the elite. 

Read more

Bad education A mathematician, astrophysicist, publisher, and Wikipedia director respond to Russia’s draft law on ‘educational activity’ that could force new regulations on popular science and more

Read more

Bad education A mathematician, astrophysicist, publisher, and Wikipedia director respond to Russia’s draft law on ‘educational activity’ that could force new regulations on popular science and more

Text by Dmitry Kartsev

Summary by Eilish Hart

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