Vladimir Putin has signed bills banning what the state calls "fake news," although the Russian president's critics see the legislation as a thinly disguised crackdown on real news—and criticism of the authorities. The new laws introduce punishments for anybody who "exhibits blatant disrespect for the society, government, official government symbols, constitution or governmental bodies of Russia," including Putin, the Moscow Times reports. The punishments include possible fines or prison time for online news outlets or users who insult authorities or spread what authorities deem to be "fake news." The fines go up to around $23,000 for repeat offenders.
The new laws make it much easier for authorities to crack down on online speech, which was the last place where "full diversity of opinion and free expression" on political subjects was generally permitted, Matthew Rojansky of the Wilson Center’s Kennan Institute tells the Washington Post. "Now it’s much more straightforward: If the state considers any online speech extremist, it can block it, and it can severely punish the speaker," he says. "One consequence may be to make it nearly impossible for individuals or groups to call for public protest activity against any action taken by the state." Authorities will also have the power to block any website considered to hold offending material. (Read more Vladimir Putin stories.)