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U.S. Prosecutions For ‘Comments’ About Obama Show Russia Has ‘More Democracy’

Vyacheslav Volodin

Vyacheslav Volodin

first deputy chief of the Russian presidential administration

“[Russia] has more Internet freedoms [than in other countries]….In the United States several people have been sentenced to a year or a year-and-a-half in prison for comments made about [U.S.] President [Barack] Obama. So think to yourself: where is there more democracy, there or here?”

....comments in question were actually alleged threats

Volodin made his remarks while discussing Internet freedoms during a September 4 meeting with journalists in the city of Tambov. It is true that U.S. authorities have arrested and prosecuted individuals for “comments made” about Obama during his two terms in office. But Volodin, a key architect of Russia’s political landscape during President Vladimir Putin’s second term, is comparing apples to oranges when discussing these prosecutions in the context online liberties. He does not cite any specific cases, but he appears to be referring to several individuals charged with threatening to kill or harm the president of the United States, which is a federal crime. Such threats can result in prosecution whether they are made online, by snail mail, or by drunk-dialing the U.S. Secret Service, as an Ohio man allegedly did in February.

The line separating what constitutes a threat to the president and free speech has been subjected to repeated debate in U.S. courts. In 2011, a federal appeals court ruled that a California man was exercising free speech by saying online that Obama should be shot. The court overturned the man’s earlier conviction for the comment.

While Volodin suggested Russia offers more protections for online speech than the United States, rights activists have noted a spike in Russian prosecutions for online speech. The Moscow-based Sova Center, which tracks extremism, said in a report released in June that in 2015 it counted 194 convictions in Russia for “extremist” speech online, up from at least 138 the previous year. (The report noted that these figures were likely higher -- possibly twofold -- given that comprehensive data on such convictions is often hard to come by). Most of these convictions were based on racist and ultranationalist rhetoric comments targeting ethnic minorities. But in 2015, at least 14 involved online statements made about public servants, up from three the previous year, according to the Sova report. In one case, Russian journalist and blogger Sergei Reznik was sentenced to 18 months in jail in January 2015 after being convicted of insulting an official and making a false legal complaint on the Internet. He denies all charges, saying both cases are retribution for his reporting on corruption.

The Washington-based rights group Freedom House, which receives funding from the U.S. government, ranked the United States No. 6 and Russia No. 49 in its 2015 report on Internet freedoms. The independent World Wide Web Foundation, meanwhile, ranked the United States No. 14 and Russia No. 55 in terms of “freedom and openness” on the Internet in its 2014 report. The media freedoms watchdog Reporters Without Borders in 2014 included both countries on its Enemies Of The Internet List, saying U.S. intelligence agencies -- as well as those of Britain and India -- "are no better than their Chinese, Russian, Iranian, or Bahraini counterparts" in terms of trampling Internet freedoms.