Hate speech law used to stifle online dissent in Russia (Update)

In Russia, hate speech is whatever the government says it is. That’s how dozens of people have ended up in prison for sharing things on social media that are critical of Putin’s newly expansive state. In particular, authorities cracked down on online criticism of Russia’s seizing of Crimea. In fact, in 2014 Putin signed into law a bill which made criticisms of Russia’s expansion a criminal offense. The Associated Press reports:

[Andrei] Bubeyev spent a lot of time online, sharing links to various articles on his VKontakte page and engaging in political debates on local news websites, his wife says.
In spring 2015, he left town to work on a rural construction site. After investigators couldn’t get through to him on the phone, they put him on a wanted list as an extremism suspect. When Bubeyev stopped by to visit his wife and young son at their country cottage, a SWAT team stormed in and arrested him.

His wife now lives alone with their 4-year-old son in a sparsely furnished apartment on the ground floor of a drab Soviet-era apartment block. After her husband was arrested, Anastasia Bubeyeva, 23, dropped out of medical school because she couldn’t find affordable day care for her child, who still wears an eye patch for an injury he suffered when he bumped his head during the raid.

Several months after his arrest, Bubeyev pleaded guilty to inciting hatred toward Russians and was sentenced to a year in prison. His offense was sharing articles, photos and videos from Ukrainian nationalist groups, including those of the volunteer Azov battalion fighting Russia-backed separatists in eastern Ukraine. Among them was an article about the graves of Russian soldiers killed in Ukraine and a video describing Russia as a “fascist aggressor” and showing Russian tanks purportedly crossing into Ukraine.

Less than two weeks after the verdict, Bubeyev was charged again. This time, he was accused of calling for “acts of extremism” and “actions undermining Russia’s territorial integrity.” He had shared the picture of a toothpaste tube and also an article under the headline “Crimea is Ukraine” by a controversial blogger, who is in jail now, calling for military aggression against Russia.

Here is the image Bubeyev shared which eventually got him two years in prison. The cartoon reads, “Squeeze Russia out of yourself!”

Russia toothpaste cartoon

Another interesting aspect of this case is that Bubeyev only had 12 friends on his VKontakte page (which sounds like a Russian version of Facebook). His attorney says the settings on his account meant that only those 12 friends would have seen the material which led to his conviction. So how did it come to the attention of Russian authorities? VKontakte declined to offer an explanation when asked by the Associated Press, but this graph from the story does give a hint:

VKontakte founder Pavel Durov sold the site and fled Russia in 2014, claiming that he had come under presser from the security services for VKontakte to disclose personal data of the users of a group linked to a protest movement in Ukraine. The company is now controlled by the media holding of Kremlin-friendly billionaire Alisher Usmanov.

This is not an isolated case. The AP notes several more instances where Putin’s critics have received serious jail time for posting things online. The cases appear somewhat random which may be the point. Bubeyev’s lawyer tells the AP, “Andrei Bubeyev thinks that he was charged as an example so that other ordinary citizens would be discouraged from expressing their opinion.”

Update: Politico reports Twitter has suspended a parody account mocking Putin:

A popular Twitter account impersonating Russian President Vladimir Putin has been suspended, the latest in a series of accounts spoofing Russia and its officials to be banned from the social media site.

The @DarthPutinKGB account, which had more than 50,000 followers, was no longer visible Tuesday afternoon, with a brief note explaining “This account has been suspended.”