Hate Speech Laws Excuse for Russian Social Media Crackdown

Published: June 8, 2016 10:44 PM /



The Associated Press (AP) reports an alarming rise in convictions under hate speech laws in Russia. Many commenters on social media are imprisoned for inciting hatred after criticizing Russian policy, including the annexation of Crimea. The Kremlin is reluctant to share exact numbers when it comes to hate speech convictions, but AP claims there have been at least 233 people convicted of hate speech in Russia in the last year, up from 92 in 2010. At least 54 people have been imprisoned for hate speech in the last year, while others may have received lighter sentences.

The vagueness of the law gives investigators, prosecutors and judges a large degree of freedom to determine what constitutes hate speech. A law from 2002 outlaws extremism, which includes acts that undermine the security of the nation as well as acts which glorify terrorism or racism. While violent acts are covered by the law against extremism, non-violent acts like hate speech are considered extremism as well.

In 2014, the same year Russia annexed Crimea, Putin signed into law multiple amendments which tightened the restrictions against extremism. One amendment increased the penalty for non-violent acts of extremism, such as hate speech. The other amendment criminalized speech which undermines Russia's territorial integrity, which makes it illegal to deny Russia's claim on Crimea.

Andrie Bubeyev was one man who was convicted of hate speech. Bubeyev shared articles, photos and videos from Ukrainian nationalist groups on the Russian social media site VKontakte. The content was critical of Russia, including videos which referred to Russia as a fascist aggressor. After being brought to trial, Bubeyev pleaded guilty to inciting hatred against Russians and was sentenced to a year in prison. Weeks after that conviction, Bubeyev was charged with undermining Russia's territorial integrity because he shared an article titled "Crimea is Ukraine."

Bubeyev was surprised to be charged over his shares on social media. The content on his account was not viewable by the general public, but could only be seen by 12 friends because of his privacy settings. Bubeyev's lawyer suggests that Russian authorities could only have become aware of his posts because they were tipped off by VKontakte.

Human rights groups in the country report that about half of all convictions for online hate speech are related to posts on VKontakte, and that the site may be more cooperative with Russian police than foreign-owned social media. VKontakte founder Pavel Durov sold the site and left the country in 2014, after coming under pressure from Russian police to share the personal details of users who were connected to a protest group in the Ukraine. VKontakte is now controlled by Russian billionaire Alisher Usmanov, who is said to be close to Putin.

Has Russia gone too far in censoring speech, or is it just taking reasonable actions to deal with extremism? Leave your comments below.

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I’m a technology reporter located near the Innovation District of Kitchener-Waterloo, Ontario.