Many democratically-minded Russians have seized upon the recent re-criminalisation of defamation as an further example of Russia’s regression during Putin’s third term. They miss the point, argues Poel Karp: Russia does need a law on defamation, but that law needs to apply to everyone, including those who hold office.
Earlier this month, the Russian parliament passed four new laws: one restricting freedom of assembly, a second limiting internet use, a third specifying that non-governmental organisations which receive money from foreigners must register as foreign agents, and a fourth law on defamation. All are a return to Soviet-style policies, with no attempt to dress them up as anything else. The first three come as no surprise: it is clear why they have been introduced and who stands to gain from them. Just as clearly, they do not reflect the concerns of the public. Ordinary people want the freedom to be part of a community and to take part in demonstrations. They are far less interested in where non-governmental organisations get their money from as they are in how it is spent and whom it will help.
The law on defamation is different. Its critics claim that criminalising defamation restricts freedom of speech. But that is not, in fact, the the case. If defamation is illegal, people can say what they like, they must simply stand accountable for it. Incitement to violence, on the other hand, which might be considered a worse offence, is not a punishable offence under Russian law: only those who perpetrate the violence are punished. And perhaps this is as it should be – the emphasis is on personal responsibility for choosing to respond. After all, the politician or journalist who incites people to violence will not be re-elected or will be sacked.
‘People forget that the millions of innocent people who suffered political repression in the Soviet Union were also victims of defamation. The Soviet government, the public prosecutor’s office, the KGB, the Interior Ministry, and the Communist Party all created a culture of defamation’
In some countries, perhaps defamation can be treated in a similar manner. Unfortunately Russia is not one of them. Critics of the new law repeatedly point out that, when he was president, Medvedev decriminalised defamation. They do not explain why he did so. They imply that this was an example of his ‘more liberal’ leadership. I’m not so sure. I’d argue that the difference between the two leaders is that Putin is a pragmatist: in his eyes, the only possible threat to his popularity is defamation by his opponents. Medvedev, on the other hand, is more of a theorist: he saw that defamation is a powerful tool of the totalitarian state, and calculated that he could support those who serve the state by removing defamation from the criminal statutes.
People forget that the millions of innocent people who suffered political repression in the Soviet Union – 17 million according to Khrushchev, 60 million according to Solzhenitsyn – were also victims of defamation. It was not only the courts and the ‘Troikas’, the three person committees who convicted people without trial, who defamed people. Defamation went on at all levels of society – it infringed people’s freedom and drastically restricted their daily lives. As well as individuals, organisations and even whole nations were defamed. The Soviet government and the public prosecutor’s office, the KGB and the Interior Ministry, and the Communist Party created a culture of defamation. And their methods have not been forgotten. In July, Natalya Magnitskaya had to write an open letter accusing four members of the Federation Soviet of libelling her son, Sergei, who was killed in prison, on a trip to the US Senate. Valentina Matviyenko, the deputies’ boss, does not appear to be in any hurry to apologise. Why not? Because in Russia defamation is par for the course.
If the other three laws turn out to be disastrous, it will be easy to repeal them, but the law on defamation is different. Russia needs a law on defamation, but a different one. To abolish it would do nothing to improve freedom of speech in Russia. What is needed is for anyone guilty of defamation to be publicly shamed, whether in the law courts or through administrative measures. No fine or other penalty can make up for damage to someone’s reputation, particularly since the lion’s share of any fine goes to the state. Public humiliation is the only thing which will make people start to consider the moral opprobrium of society. This is the way forward.
This will only work if defamation is illegal for everyone and it is possible to prosecute the government bodies, first and foremost, the public prosecutor’s office, the investigatory committee, the federal security service and the Interior Ministry. It will only work if allegations of defamation by the state and its employees are examined in a truly independent, objective manner. People must recognise that public office brings with it an increased responsibility.
One of the main reasons for Russia’s current reversion to Soviet-style policies is that those who came to power in 1991 chose not to put an end to Soviet ways of working, the design of Soviet society. They simply refuted the claims of Marxism-Leninism. For wholesale change to take place, all that was needed was to ensure that members of the former party state apparatus constituted no more than 5-7 per cent of the new authorities. Today they make up the vast majority of the governing class. This entrenchment is the very situation that August 1991 discredited.
The new laws are a response to growing public dissatisfaction and the threat of an economic crisis. But the situation in Russia can only be remedied if its origins are fully understood. Unless this happens, it will yet again be those who tell the truth who are penalised. The authorities underestimate how serious this is: it spells disaster.