Insulting the President

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♦  Lev Ponomarev: An elected president — and he is an elected president — should not be insulted  ♦

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For Human Rights

Radio Sol [Salt] speaks to  Lev PONOMAREV, executive director of the Russia-wide “For Human Rights” movement, and also connects with representatives of the movement in the regions. The radio station’s Valentina IVAKINA discusses the latest news with Ponomarev, and asks about the cases that organization’s specialists are working on.

Valentina Ivakina: Lev Alexandrovich, let’s move on to … the news that people have been discussing since Monday, although this is not the first time it has come up. I’m talking about penalties for personally insulting the president. Some are jokingly calling this the “Putin law.”

Today, for example, Kommersant daily newspaper published an article which says that State Duma Speaker Alexander Volodin has supported a proposal to defend the honor and dignity of the Russian president. He stated that the issue was now not all that relevant, but it was worth discussing for the future. Here is what supporters of this law’s passage are saying. They are writing that right now the president is completely unprotected from insults. Here, for example, Dmitry Peskov, the Russian president’s press secretary, today commented on Lenta.ru:

“You know that the president himself has quite a constructive attitude toward criticism aimed at him. His attitude is especially constructive toward balanced and intelligent critical comments.”

Also: “Regarding the personification of the post of president, it is essential that we seriously work through this issue, and first of all, probably, lawyers should study this initiative. They need to study international experience.”

So it seems they haven’t rejected it yet but also won’t say it was going to be approved. For example, Duma Speaker Volodin said: “People write what they want, and they say what they want. This has become an inalienable part of our culture.” Some experts say that criticism, caricatures, jokes, irony, a sarcastic tone, satire, or comparison of the president with any other person could be punishable by imprisonment because this could be considered an insult. Some people recall that a similar law was passed in the last few years of the Soviet Union’s existence but was practically not enforced, and they also draw analogies. What can you add on this subject?

Lev Ponomarev: First of all, I want to say that I myself never express myself in a pejorative way, not only with respect to the president, but also toward the many other people in power who, I believe, are behaving improperly, as well as toward people who aren’t in power at all. That is, speaking in general, people have to learn some limitations in their statements. That is proper, I think.

This is the culture of speech, and society itself has to work this out because in principle we do have a law, Article 319 of the Russian Criminal Code, “Insulting a representative of authority,” the public insult of authority, and it is punishable either by a fine — there’s a small fine of up to 40,000 roubles — or else by corrective labour. I should say that it is perfectly acceptable, this article. I think it would be wrong to impose criminal punishment for an insult, by which I mean a term of imprisonment. But at the same time, fines are acceptable because, I believe, an elected president — and he is an elected president — should not be insulted, nor should any other citizen of Russia, either in or out of power. So I think this is enough, but in general I believe that society itself must fight this.

Even when people who are close to me but more often people closer to the opposition, they, too, when they express themselves with excessive vulgarity, to put it mildly, I don’t like it, and I’m prepared to criticize that. In this sense, I am not on these people’s side. But at the same time, especially given the judicial bacchanalia going on here now, of course, any legislative proposal as it is written will be fairly moderately, and certain extreme instances will be described that require punishment. In fact, however, the law will be applied much more broadly. We have already seen what is going on now.

Today I read that in Saratov a criminal case has been opened under Article 282 for insult and Article 282 for “extremism”. The person in question wrote this:

“You’re a vatnik [an insulting term for a Russian hyper-patriot] and a katsap [an insulting term for a Russian derived from the Ukrainian ?“scummy Russian”]. What else could you call cattle? Cite all the facts you like, and he won’t believe you.”

There are plenty of comments like that. This is what they’re now trying to bring criminal charges for. …

Translated by Marian Schwartz

Moscow Helsinki Group

An excerpt from “The life of refugees in Russia,
[Zakhar] Prilepin in the Don People’s Republic and defending the president from insults”
Radio Sol, 14 February 2017

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