Putin out to silence his critics with a range of new laws

 

Moscow

Vladimir Putin's United Russia party pushed two controversial laws through the lower house of parliament yesterday, in what critics said was the latest sign of a crackdown at the beginning of the President's new term in office.

The Duma passed a law that will force any organisation operating in Russia but funded from abroad to brand itself a "foreign agent" on its website and promotional materials, and also cleared the re-introduction of a libel law that was taken off the books last year.

The bills will now need to pass through the upper house of parliament and be signed off by Mr Putin, usually a formality. They are the latest in a series of laws to have been passed since Mr Putin returned to the Kremlin in May, including a bill that raises the fines for unauthorised protests by approximately 120 times. A law on the internet, ostensibly aimed at paedophiles and extremist sites, was also approved by the Duma this week.

Wikipedia closed its Russian-language site in protest at the law, which it says could be used to increase censorship and close down sites the authorities find inconvenient..

The libel law is also, in theory, similar to many laws on the books of other countries, but critics say it is the way the law is implemented that is crucial. A small group of independent and opposition-minded journalists picketed parliament, protesting that the law could be used by authorities to silence journalists from making allegations about corruption and other abuses of power. The maximum fine for libel is now 5m roubles (£100,000).

"The purpose of this law is not to defend the honest name of people, but to worry journalists and bloggers who are trying to uncover things that are inconvenient for the authorities," said Yury Saprykin, a leading Russian journalist.

The Duma itself is dominated by Mr Putin's party, but since street protests against his rule have swelled in Moscow in recent months, the previously loyal Just Russia party has become more of a genuine opposition force.

Yesterday's hearing was marked by scandalous scenes. Just Russia MP Ilya Ponomarev said the Duma was filled with "crooks and thieves" from United Russia, and that by passing the law, journalists would be unable to call them by their real name.

The other law approved yesterday means any non-governmental organisation engaging in political work in Russia with funding from abroad must stamp any material they distribute with "foreign agent".

Human rights and other organisations working in Russia say they have little choice but to take money from foreign donors, as Russian businesses are reluctant to donate to organisations deemed in any way politically sensitive.

"We're seeing Putin's response to the fact that for the first time, he isn't in full control," said political analyst Dmitry Oreshkin.

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