Russia blocked access to Facebook on Friday and threatened to punish anyone spreading ‘false information’ about its armed forces with up to 15 years in prison, cracking down on free speech more aggressively than at any other time in the world. 22 years of President Vladimir V. Putin. in power.
The crackdown comes as the Kremlin struggles to contain discontent over the war in Ukraine and control the narrative as Russia faces its worst economic crisis in decades following crushing Western sanctions this week. Fearing legal action, other independent Russian news outlets shut down on Friday and the BBC said it had suspended all operations in Russia.
Mr. Putin signed a law that effectively criminalizes any public opposition or independent reporting on the war against Ukraine. Coming into force on Saturday, the law could make it a crime to simply call the war a ‘war’ – the Kremlin says it is a ‘special military operation’ – on social media or in a news article or 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, as well as to Facebook, the social network popular with the urban middle class the west, where many have posted strong criticism of Mr. Putin’s war.
Facebook, the Russian internet regulator claimed, had engaged in “discrimination against Russian news media” by limiting access to pro-Kremlin accounts, including that of the ministry’s TV channel. defense. The move dealt a blow to internet freedom in Russia, where Western social media remained accessible despite Mr Putin’s creeping authoritarianism.
For now, popular Russian social networks like VKontakte remain accessible, as well as Instagram, Twitter and YouTube. But analysts expect a new crackdown, reinforcing the importance of the messaging and social networking app Telegram, which the Kremlin tried to block in 2018.
Russian officials say journalists who criticize the war – or call it a “war” or an “invasion” – harm the national interest, even calling them traitors.
Parliament’s lower house, the State Duma, unanimously passed the law criminalizing “false news” about the armed forces on Friday, and Putin signed it later in the day. Vyacheslav Volodin, the Duma speaker, said that under the new law, “those who lied and made statements discrediting our armed forces will be forced to face very severe penalties.”
The text of the new law offered few details about what constituted an offence, 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.
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, and the BBC – which has a major Russian-language service in Moscow as well as an office in English – said it was suspending operations inside the country.
“This legislation appears to criminalize the process of independent journalism,” BBC chief executive Tim Davie said in a statement. “This leaves us with no choice but to temporarily suspend the work of all BBC News journalists and their support staff within the Russian Federation while we assess the full implications of this unwanted development.”
Mr Putin remained silent on these developments on Friday. Instead, he held a televised videoconference with the governor of Kaliningrad region, a Russian enclave sandwiched between Poland and Lithuania on the Baltic Sea, in which he tried to exude a sense of normalcy amid of the crisis.
“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 appeared to be a message to his domestic audience that he was not the one escalating tensions.
Tensions have been felt this week by, among others, Russia’s community of independent journalists, who have found ways to publish and broadcast material harshly critical of the Kremlin despite Mr Putin’s authoritarianism.
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 Telegram messaging app, where many outlets have their own accounts. Some may also use virtual private networks, or VPNs, to circumvent restrictions.
But Russia-based independent news outlets have seen the dangers as so great that more and more of them are shutting down. 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.”
Others tried to stay alive by telling their readers that they would no longer cover the war. Russia’s last major independent newspaper, Novaya Gazeta, noted it was removing its content about the war in Ukraine. The Village, a digital lifestyle magazine that moved its operations from Russia to Poland this week, said it was retroactively editing its articles to change any mention of the word “war” to “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 energy giant Gazprom, said on Friday it would delete all companies’ social media accounts and shut down its website in the 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.”
The situation was also a sea change for Novaya Gazeta, the 29-year-old independent newspaper which suffered the murder of six of its journalists and whose editor, Dmitry Muratov, shared the Nobel Peace Prize last year. .
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.
“I don’t know what will happen next,” she wrote.