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Russian Duma Passes Controversial Defamation, NGO Bills

  • RFE/RL

A protester demonstrates against censorship of the Internet near the State Duma in Moscow.

A protester demonstrates against censorship of the Internet near the State Duma in Moscow.

Russia's lower house of parliament has approved two controversial bills -- one that would impose tough new rules on nongovernmental organizations (NGOs) that receive foreign funding, and the other that reintroduces slander as a criminal offense.

Both measures must still be approved by the upper house and signed into law by President Vladimir Putin. Those approvals are expected.

The State Duma on July 13 overwhelmingly approved the bill on the foreign-funded NGOs. Only three deputies voted against, one abstained, and 374 voted in favor.

The bill seeks to regulate what are described as "foreign agents" who receive funding from abroad.

It seeks to tighten control on foreign-funded NGOs by compelling them to submit to the Russian authorities reports on their activities.

Under the bill, the targeted NGOs are also required to file detailed quarterly financial reports, and will be subject to regular and unannounced inspections.

Lawmaker Andrei Vorobyov, of the ruling United Russia party, defended the bill, saying that many NGOs were exempted.

"Nongovernmental organizations that are involved in the protection of children, charity, the protection of flora and fauna, as well as religious organizations have been excluded from the list," Vorobyov said.

Ilya Ponomaryov, a deputy with the A Just Russia faction, said the exemptions merely made clear which organizations the Kremlin considers "untouchable."

Ponomaryov said these "are the ones founded by the church, the state, and the business. This way we clearly established whom in this country we consider to be universally untouchable and immune to any criminal prosecution."

Deputy Vladimir Zhirinovsky, who heads the Liberal Democratic Party of Russia and supports the measure, seemed to give support to Ponomaryov's point of view by claiming the law targets specific activists.

He said the law "concerns a small group of people, such as A Just Russia [Duma Deputies] Ponomaryov and [Gennady] Gudkov, or Bolotnaya [Square protest leaders], [Aleksei] Navalny, [Boris] Nemtsov, [Sergei] Yashin. It concerns only five or seven people. But because of their extremist activities, we had to modernize our legislation."

Observers have noted that the term "foreign agent" is synonymous with espionage for many in Russia and other countries.

Critics have denounced the measure as part of a crackdown on civil liberties that has accompanied Putin's return for a third presidential term in May.

The legislation has been condemned as unreasonable by the United States and European Union.

Silencing Critics

The bill on making libel and slander a criminal offense envisages fines of up to 5 million rubles ($152,000) for misinformation that has been purposefully disseminated to damage a reputation.

The bill rolls back ex-President Dmitry Medvedev's reform that decriminalized libel in December 2011 and made it an administrative offense.

The bill has been condemned as a move by the authorities to increase their power to silence critics. Officials in Russia are often accused of corruption and abuse of power.

Approval of the two measures comes after the Duma earlier this week approved a controversial information law that critics say could make it easier for authorities to censor websites.

Supporters say the measure is meant to crack down on child pornography, suicide how-to instructions and drug propaganda, but activists say they fear it could lead to Internet censorship by blacklisting sites deemed undesirable by authorities.

With reporting by ITAR-TASS, AFP, Reuters, and RIA Novosti

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