MOSCOW — Oct. 9 was the first time in six months that Maria Motuznaya left a courthouse in this country happy. Charged with inciting hatred for posting pictures that mock the Russian Orthodox Church on…
MOSCOW — Oct. 9 was the first time in six months that Maria Motuznaya left a courthouse in this country happy.
Charged with inciting hatred for posting pictures that mock the Russian Orthodox Church on her page in VK, Russia’s most popular social media network, Motuznaya, 24, was standing trial and facing up to six years in prison when the prosecution suddenly announced it was withdrawing the case from court for further review.
“We didn’t see this coming at all,” Motuznaya, a resident of the western Siberian city of Barnaul, said in a phone interview. “But my lawyers are positive it means they will now bury the case and drop the charges.”
The tide in Motuznaya’s case, one of the most high-profile prosecutions of social media users this year, turned a week after President Vladimir Putin announced softening the legislation that criminalized social media posts that authorities consider “extremist.” The legislation, which Putin himself proposed in 2014, been widely criticized as a weapon against voices critical of the government and, more recently, against an even greater swath of people.
With his approval ratings souring on the heels of an unpopular pension reform, Putin on Oct. 3 introduced a bill to Parliament to downgrade the offense to a misdemeanor for first-time offenders. The move came four months after Putin’s annual phone-in marathon, during which he acknowledged that prosecuting people for posts, likes and shares sometimes turns into “idiocy and absurdity.” The amendment was expected, analysts say.
“People are tired of authoritarianism and want maybe not an ideal democracy, but at least a ruling elite that cares about their needs,” says Abbas Gallyamov, a former Kremlin speechwriter-turned political analyst.
Human rights advocates, however, say they fear the amendments will be easy to work around. After a brief thaw that will see some high-profile cases dismissed, rights activists say they expect Russian law enforcement to return to widespread enforcement of the law.
Skeptics of Putin’s moves to soften the law can point to years of legislation by Russia’s government to restrict free speech. A 2016 report by PEN America, a U.S.-based nonprofit organization that defends free expression around the world, charts how during the 21st century Putin’s government has created a series of laws — dedicated to protecting children, fighting terrorism and religious hatred, and regulating LGBT-related information — that have effectively muzzled speech in the country.
The government intensified its regulation beginning in 2012, according to Human Rights Watch, with rules targeting political opposition and civic groups that effectively reach into the daily lives of all Russians.
The law stirs a certain amount of irony. While the Kremlin regulates social media activity across the country, a number of other nations allege Moscow is stirring social media activity to influence their elections, most notably marked by a U.S. indictment that alleges Russia’s government sponsored online activity to influence the 2016 U.S. presidential elections.
In 2014, Putin signed off on harsher anti-extremism laws that targeted social media users and online speech. One of the most turbulent years of Putin’s third term, 2014 had witnessed Russia’s annexation of Crimea, a seizure that triggered fighting in eastern Ukraine and economic sanctions from Western nations.
The impact of the laws was immediate: 258 guilty verdicts were recorded in 2014, compared to 82 in 2011. The convictions have since kept growing: In 2017, the Supreme Court counted 460 guilty verdicts.
All told, Russian courts have convicted just under 1,500 people during the past four years on charges of publicly inciting hatred, according to statistics supplied by the country’s Supreme Court. In the vast majority of those cases, people were prosecuted for posting, liking or sharing items on social media networks.
In many cases, people were handed down real prison terms.
Vague definitions of “extremism,” “inciting hatred” and “social group” allow law enforcement officials — eager to demonstrate that they’re successfully implementing the legislation — to target anyone in Russia, says Maria Kravchenko of the SOVA Center, a Moscow-based nongovernmental organization that monitors abuses of the anti-extremism legislation.
At first law enforcement officials primarily applied the law to topics sensitive to the Kremlin: social media users were implicated for writing critically about the annexation of Crimea, posting cartoons about Russia’s involvement in eastern Ukraine or corruption across the country. Government opposition activists also were frequent targets, but this year the prosecutions began being more broadly applied.
Motuznaya, whose case was withdrawn, wasn’t an opposition activist, nor did she write about Ukraine. She collected memes on her social media page that she considered funny when she was a student. The ones that authorities say implicated her mocked Russian Orthodox Church priests for their stereotypical love of alcohol and criticized them for being greedy and corrupt. Other posts depicted nuns smoking or Jesus dancing.
Another resident of Barnaul, 19-year-old student Daniil Markin, made headlines this year when he posted on social media about topics not tied to politics. He, too, was accused of inciting hatred because of several pictures he saved to his social media account that featured, among other things, a character from the “Game of Thrones” television series depicted as Jesus.
In a third case, Lyubov Kalugina, 31-year-old self-described radical feminist from the Siberian city of Omsk, faces prosecution for stating on her social media page that she hates men, referring to them in obscene language and expressing hope that a noisy neighbor “dies of prostate cancer.”
In late June, two months before her trial began, Motuznaya was added to a government list of people labeled as extremists whose bank accounts were to be frozen. “I have to live off my mother’s bank card,” she says. “I have no idea when and if they are going to unfreeze my accounts.”
Concession with a Catch
The recent, high-profile prosecutions have elicited an unusual reaction from state officials and large high-tech companies: Both have supported efforts by human-rights advocates to revise the controversial legislation.
In June, during Putin’s annual phone-in marathon, Communist Party lawmaker Sergei Shargunov criticized prosecuting people for memes, shares and likes. In late July, Mail.Ru Group, Russia’s IT giant that owns the country’s two biggest social media networks, VK and Odnoklassniki, issued a statement urging authorities to give amnesty to everyone convicted over the law, and called on the Supreme Court to set clearer rules for adjudicating cases involving online speech.
The Supreme Court in September advised judges to consider the context of online speech, its reach and actions it incited when ruling on cases involving the law. The decree was the high court’s third on the subject since 2011 but was unlikely to reduce the number of convictions, lawyers say: Supreme Court decrees are merely recommendations which judges aren’t obligated to follow, and usually don’t.
But the decree was soon followed by Putin’s amendments, and several cases have been immediately dismissed. “I am happy — so many people must feel relieved and hopeful now,” Shargunov said, commenting on the move.
Human rights activists and experts on extremism legislation are less optimistic. The language of the law has not changed, says Kravchenko of the SOVA Center. All definitions remain vague, allowing law enforcement great leeway to prosecute whomever they like, she says.
Putin’s proposal to downgrade the offense to a misdemeanor appears to be a public concession aimed at defusing tension and scoring political points with the public while keeping the crackdown in place, says Damir Gainutdinov, a lawyer with the Agora, an NGO that focuses on human-rights issues and helps defend social media users in courts.
While a first offense will be classified as a misdemeanor, a second one will be treated as a criminal offense. “Nothing stops the police from finding another silly picture on your page and prosecuting you for the second time,” Gainutdinov says. “They did not spend 10 years building an oppression machine to just abandon it.”
For now, for the sake of appearances, a number of high-profile cases will be dismissed, says Dmitry Dzhulai, a former officer of a regional police anti-extremism division.
“This is how the system works: (the authorities) introduce a new law; there’s an order to show that it’s working, and everyone is ostentatiously complying,” says Dzhulai, who now works as a defense lawyer. “But time will pass, and things will go back to the way they were. … The system is vindictive and never admits its flaws.”
Motuznaya, Markin and Kalugina echo that sentiment — none of the three believe they’re safe from future prosecution.
Kalugina says she lost her job when her employer found out she was being investigated for extremism. “And once you’re in those police databases, no company with a decent security department would want to hire you.”
Markin and Motuznaya say they fear they whatever outcome of their current trials will be, they may still be targeted for a second prosecution, which would be treated as a criminal offense. “I don’t think the police, the authorities will forget (the attention and outrage) my story stirred up,” Motuznaya says.
On Oct. 17, Motuznaya left Russia and moved to Ukraine.