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Russia: Defamation is Criminalized Again

(Aug. 20, 2012) On July 28, 2012, President Vladimir Putin of the Russian Federation signed into law amendments to the country's Criminal Code, recently passed by the legislature, which would reintroduce defamation as a felony punishable by fines in an amount equal to approximately US$170,000 or by forced correctional labor for a period of up to 12 weeks. (Russia Returns Criminal Liability for Defamation [in Russian], Voice of Russia (July 30, 2012).) The original bill, which was not passed by the legislature in that form, had provided for a five-year term of imprisonment. (Id.)

The Law defines defamation as “knowing dissemination of false information hurting one's dignity and reputation” and lists four situations in which the crime is considered more serious: defamation contained in public speech, defamation conducted by an official who used his/her position, false information about one's health, and false accusations of committing a serious crime. (Federal Law No. 141 of July 28, 2012 on Amendments to the Criminal Code of the Russian Federation, art. 1 [in Russian], Rossiiskaia Gazeta, available at RG.RU (July 28, 2012).)

Following recommendations of the Committee on Legal Affairs and Human Rights to the Parliamentary Assembly of the Council of Europe, which has compared this type of crime with a “'Sword of Damocles' over all who wish to avail themselves of their freedom of expression, especially the media” (Towards Decriminalization of Defamation, Council of Europe Parliamentary Assembly, Report of the Committee on Legal Affairs and Human Rights (June 25, 2007)), defamation was decriminalized in the Russian Federation in December 2011 and was subject to only to measures of administrative liability during the months between that date and the signing of the new amendment to the Code. (Federal Law No. 420 of Dec. 7, 2011 on Amendments to the Criminal Code of the Russian Federation, art. 1.45 [in Russian], Rossiiskaia Gazeta (Dec. 8, 2011).)

Responding to concerns of the media community that the amendment can be used to restrict freedom of speech and critiques of the government, President Putin stated that provisions on criminal liability for defamation are not “overwhelming.” (Russia Returned Criminal Liability for Defamation, supra.)

Prepared by Virab Khachatryan, Law Library of Congress Intern, under the supervision of Peter Roudik, Director of Legal Research.