DUSSELDORF, Germany — Russian President Vladimir Putin on Friday intensified a crackdown on media outlets and individuals who fail to hew to the Kremlin line on Russia’s war in Ukraine, blocking Facebook and Twitter and signing into law a bill that criminalizes the intentional spreading of what Moscow deems to be “fake” reports.
These actions against social media companies follow the U.S.-funded Voice of America, Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty and BBC as well as the blocks imposed upon Deutsche Welle, Latvian-based website Meduza, and Voice of America, which are all funded by the U.S. Government. The government’s sweeping action against the foreign outlets that publish news in Russian seeks to establish even tighter controls over what information the domestic audience sees about the invasion of Ukraine.
The state communications watchdog Roskomnadzor said it cut access to Twitter and Facebook in line with a decision by the prosecutor general’s office. The Russian authorities had previously banned Twitter’s content from its website and the watchdog accused it of failing to remove it.
Twitter said in a statement Friday afternoon that while the company is “aware of reports” that its platform is blocked in Russia, it has not been able to confirm whether this is the case.
The bill, quickly rubber-stamped by both houses of the Kremlin-controlled parliament and signed by Putin, imposes prison sentences of up to 15 years for those spreading information that goes against the Russian government’s narrative on the war.
The question regarding Russia is no longer “what we do to stop disinformation,” former U.S. ambassador to Russia Michael McFaul said on Friday. “The question has to be how do we promote information inside Russia — and I don’t have the answer.”
Multiple media outlets indicated that they would suspend all work in Russia while they assess the situation. CNN and CBS News both said that they would cease broadcasting in Russia, while Bloomberg and BBC stated they would suspend temporarily the work of their reporters there.
Russian authorities have repeatedly and falsely decried reports of Russian military setbacks or civilian deaths in Ukraine as “fake” news. State media outlets refer to Russia’s invasion of Ukraine as a “special military operation” rather than a war or an invasion.
Vyacheslav Volodin, the speaker of the lower house of parliament, said the measure “will force those who lied and made statements discrediting our armed forces to bear very grave punishment.”
“I want everyone to understand, and for society to understand, that we are doing this to protect our soldiers and officers, and to protect the truth,” he added.
The law envisages sentences of up to three years or fines for spreading what authorities deem to be false news about the military, but the maximum punishment rises to 15 years for cases deemed to have led to “severe consequences.”
In blocking Facebook, Roskomnadzor cited its alleged “discrimination” of the Russian media and state information resources. In a statement, the agency stated that Meta, the owner of Facebook’s Russian news channel RT, and all other state-controlled media were violating Russian law.
“Obviously Putin is shutting these people down because he is afraid. He wouldn’t be shutting them down if everything was going peachy keen,” McFaul said during a call with reporters and experts hosted by Stanford’s Cyber Policy Center. “This is an indicator of his state of mind.”
Nick Clegg, Meta’s president of global affairs, said tweeted in response to Russia’s action that “millions of ordinary Russians will find themselves cut off from reliable information, deprived of their everyday ways of connecting with family and friends and silenced from speaking out.”
“We will continue to do everything we can to restore our services so they remain available to people to safely and securely express themselves and organize for action,” Clegg added.
Russian media blocking the foreign media organisations are some of Russia’s most powerful and frequently critical publications.
Roskomnadzor said those media had published “false information” on subjects including “the methods of carrying out combat activities (attacks on civilians, strikes on civil infrastructure), the numbers of losses of the Russian Federation Armed Forces. and victims among the civilian population.”
BBC Director-General Tim Davie said the legislation “appears to criminalize the process of independent journalism.”
“The safety of our staff is paramount and we are not prepared to expose them to the risk of criminal prosecution simply for doing their jobs,” he said.
Davie said the BBC’s Russian-language news service would continue to operate from outside Russia.
Earlier in the day, the BBC posted instructions on Twitter about how Russian readers could work around the block by using apps or the “dark web.”
“Access to accurate, independent information is a fundamental human right which should not be denied to the people of Russia, millions of whom rely on BBC News every week. We will continue our efforts to make BBC News available in Russia, and across the rest of the world,” the BBC said.
This week, the BBC stated that shortwave radio will be restored to Ukraine and Russia. People can now listen to BBC programs without basic equipment.
Russia has seen some well-known media outlets choose to close than have strict reporting restrictions. Znak, a news website reported that it would be closing on Friday morning after parliament had approved the bill’s draft. On Thursday, Russia’s top independent radio station Ekho Moskvy was closed and independent TV station Dozdh suspended operations after receiving a threat of closure from the authorities.
They also made a strong effort to attack human rights groups.
Authorities raided the offices of Memorial, one of Russia’s oldest and most prominent human rights organizations. According to Memorial members, police didn’t provide any explanation and there were no warnings.
“The police refused to let me and the lawyer in without explanation, and when I tried not to let in the reinforcement officers who arrived in bulletproof vests and masks, they threatened to use force if I did not let them in,” the chairman of International Memorial Yan Rachinsky said. “This is the level of justice today in the capital of Russia.”
Civic Assistance, another important human rights organization, was also raided in Moscow.
Jill Lawless, London, and Barbara Ortutay, Oakland, California were the Associated Press journalists who contributed.