Russia’s parliament on Friday passed a law punishing the spread of “false information” about Russia’s armed forces by up to 15 years in prison, the latest move by the Kremlin to criminalize political opposition and independent reporting during its war on Israel. Ukraine.
The law will come into force on Saturday and could make it a criminal offense to simply call war a ‘war’ – the Kremlin says it is a ‘special military operation’ – on social media or in a press article or a broadcast.
Announcements of the law’s arrival had already caused Russian independent media to shut down in recent days, and more followed on Friday. In addition, the government has blocked access inside Russia to the websites of major Russian-language media based outside the country. And the last major independent newspaper, Novaya Gazeta, said on Twitter that it was removing its war content.
Vyacheslav Volodin, the speaker of the lower house of parliament, said that under the new law, “those who have lied and made statements discrediting our armed forces will be forced to face very severe penalties”. It was not immediately clear whether the law would apply to people inside Russia – such as foreign correspondents – producing content in a language other than Russian. But another senior lawmaker said citizens of any country could be prosecuted under it.
As the law progressed through the legislature, President Vladimir V. Putin held a televised videoconference with the governor of Kaliningrad — the Russian enclave on the Baltic Sea sandwiched between Poland and Lithuania — and called on the countries Westerners to normalize their relations with Russia.
“We see no need to escalate the situation or worsen our relations,” Putin said. “All of our actions, if they occur, occur exclusively, always, in response to ill-intentioned actions towards the Russian Federation.”
Mr Putin’s comments seemed unreal with the war in Ukraine raging, but they seemed to be a message to his domestic audience that he was not the one escalating tensions. And the Kremlin has gone to even greater lengths to control the messages Russians hear, mounting a harsher crackdown on free speech than it has at any other time in 22 years in power. of Mr. Putin.
The text of the new law offers few details on what constitutes an offense, but Russian journalists and Kremlin opponents interpret it to mean that any contradiction to government statements about the invasion could be treated as a crime. In addition to criminalizing the sharing of “false information”, it makes “discrediting” Russia’s use of its military in Ukraine, calling on other countries to sanction Russia or protesting against Russia’s invasion of Ukraine punishable. fines and years of imprisonment.
On Thursday, the mainstays of Russia’s independent broadcast media, the Echo Moscow radio station and the TV Rain television channel, closed their doors under pressure from the state.
Then, on Friday, the government said it would block access to Russian-language media produced outside the country: the websites of Voice of America, BBC, Deutsche Welle, Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty and the famous media based in Latvia. Medouza. The reason: the systematic dissemination of what she called false information about “the special military operation on the territory of Ukraine”.
Russians will still be able to access blocked media through the popular messaging app Telegram, where many news outlets have their own channels. Some may also use virtual private networks, or VPNs, to circumvent restrictions.
The BBC announced on Friday that it was temporarily suspending all journalistic work in Russia in response to the law, although it would continue to operate its Russian-language site – which reached a record 10.7 million people last week – since outside the country.
“The safety of our staff is paramount and we are not prepared to put them at risk of criminal prosecution simply for doing their jobs,” BBC chief executive Tim Davie said in a statement.
Znak, an independent media outlet covering Russia’s regions, shut down its website on Friday, with a statement saying, “We are suspending our operations given the large number of new restrictions on media operations in Russia.”
And The Village, a digital lifestyle magazine that offered recommendations for shopping, restaurants and other activities in Moscow and St. Petersburg, moved its operations to Warsaw this week in response to its website being blocked. . The magazine also announced that, for fear of the new law, it was retroactively editing its articles to replace any mention of the word “war” with “special operation”.
Until recently, Russia’s mostly uncensored internet offered a way for Russians to voice their dissent and read stories outside of the Kremlin propaganda bubble that shrouds much of the news media. traditional in the country. But amid the war in Ukraine, which has sparked protests across the country and a wave of opposition from Russians online, the Kremlin appears to see the internet as a new threat.
Echo of Moscow, a radio station founded by Soviet dissidents in 1990 and later bought by national energy giant Gazprom, said on Friday it would delete all companies’ social media accounts and shut down its website in as part of a “liquidation” process. By afternoon, her popular YouTube channel was gone. More than a million people had tuned in to listen to its programs every day, according to the radio station’s longtime editor, Aleksei A. Venediktov.
“Echo is my home,” Irina Vorobyeva, a journalist who worked at the radio station for more than 15 years, said in an interview on Thursday. “It’s the home of a lot of journalists, and it’s the home of a lot of our guests, who came here to give their opinion, to talk about things that the world didn’t know.”
One of the last major independent news outlets still in operation, the Novaya Gazeta newspaper, also appeared to be on the verge of closing. He said he would remove all war-themed material in response to censorship.
In an email newsletter on Friday morning, Nadezhda Prusenkova, one of the paper’s reporters, wrote that it was hard to see many avenues for the publication to continue, echoing a similar sentiment shared by its editor. leader, Dmitry Muratov, in an earlier interview.
“I don’t know what will happen next,” she wrote.