Russian authorities have launched a criminal libel probe in response to articles critical of Dmitry Rogozin, director general of the nation’s federal space agency Roscosmos, a regional newspaper reported Wednesday.
Moscow police initiated an investigation into articles published by two websites, Rospres.org and Kompromatural.ru., after receiving a defamation complaint from Mr. Rogozin, Russia’s former ambassador to NATO, Kommersant reported.
Both outlets harshly criticized Mr. Rogozin late last year in articles that accused him of spending funds toward whitewashing his reputation, including allegedly bribing the editor of a Russian new site into censoring an uncomplimentary story, the report said.
Mr. Rogozin complained to the Russian attorney general’s office on account of the articles expressing “a negative assessment” of his activities, according to Kommersant. Prosecutors subsequently referred the case to a specialized unit within the Ministry of Internal Affairs in Moscow, the report said.
Police are investigating whether the articles violated Russian law prohibiting defamation contained in a public statement, publicly demonstrated work or media, according to Kommersant. Individuals convicted risk penalties including up to 240 hours of forced labor and fines of up to 1 million rubles, or roughly $15,700.
Russia has repeatedly passed legislation under President Vladimir Putin restricting freedom of speech, and last year it was ranked 140 out of 180 countries on the annual World Press Freedom Index released by Reporters Without Borders.
More recently, Mr. Putin signed a new law this week imposing penalties for Russian internet users caught spread “fake news” and information that presents “clear disrespect for society, government, state symbols the constitution and government institutions.”
“No doubt, one can hardly agree with the opinion that this is some sort of censorship,” Dmitry Peskov, Mr. Putin’s spokesman, said prior to the bill’s signing Monday. “This sphere — the sphere of fake news — insults and so on, is under strict regulation in many countries of the world, even in European states. This undoubtedly has to be done in our country.”
Appointed by Mr. Putin to lead Roscosmos in 2018, Mr. Rogozin, 55, acted as Russia’s ambassador to NATO from 2008 through 2011 prior to serving as the deputy prime minister in charge of the defense industry of Russia until last year.
He has been barred from entering the U.S. since 2014 under sanctions imposed following Russia’s annexation of Crimea from Ukraine.