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March 7, 2022, 2:33 p.m.

“An information dark age”: Russia’s new “fake news” law has outlawed most independent journalism there

“Military censorship in Russia has quickly moved into a new phase…the threat of criminal prosecution of both journalists and citizens who spread information about military hostilities that is different from the press releases of the Ministry of Defense.”

A week ago, many of the biggest fronts in the Russia-vs.-the-West information war crossed national borders — Western tech giants restricting Russia’s access to money and audience, and Western governments and cable systems kicking Russian propaganda off their screens.

But in recent days, those battles have become more internal, as the Kremlin works hard to limit what independent information reaches its citizens — indicating increasing uneasiness with public opinion on the invasion of Ukraine.

On Thursday, a committee in the Duma approved an amendment to Russian media law that made it a crime to distribute “fake” news or information about the war in Ukraine — with a story’s “fakeness” determined solely by the Russian authorities. Vladimir Putin signed it into law on Friday, and the effects were immediate. Both Russian and international news organizations either withdrew their reporters from the country, changed how they did their work, or shut down completely.

Here are some of the international outlets who have stopped (or at least said they would stop) their reporting inside Russia because of the law:

  • Bloomberg announced it would “temporarily suspend the work of its journalists inside Russia,” with editor-in-chief John Micklethwait saying the law “seems designed to turn any independent reporter into a criminal purely by association” and “makes it impossible to continue any semblance of normal journalism inside the country.”
  • The public service broadcasters of Canada, Germany, and Italy all announced the same.
  • The BBC said it was “temporarily suspending its journalists’ work in Russia” and that “BBC News in Russian will still be produced from outside the country.” “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,” director-general Tim Davie said. But the interim director of BBC News, Jonathan Munro, noted no one was leaving Russia:

  • U.S.-backed Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty has also suspended operations in Russia, though it also faced another problem: Authorities had “initiated bankruptcy proceedings” against its Russian unit because of millions of dollars in unpaid “fines” against the broadcaster for refusing to obey a Russian law that would cripple its editorial content. “Because RFE/RL journalists continue to tell the truth about Russia’s catastrophic invasion of its neighbor, the company plans to report about these developments from outside of Russia,” the network said.

But not every news outlets has decided to go that far — instead keeping quiet or making smaller changes in how reporting in Russia is handled.

  • The Wall Street Journal declined to say how it was responding, issuing a statement: “Our top priorities are the safety of our employees and covering this important story fairly and fully. Being in Moscow, freely able to talk to officials and capture the mood, is key to that mission.”
  • The Washington Post instituted a new policy of not including bylines or datelines on any of its stories from Russia, providing at least a patina of anonymity to its reporters there. “Been around a while,” Post media reporter Paul Farhi tweeted. “Never seen anything like this.” Publicly, the Post said only that it would “exercise caution while seeking clarity about how these reported restrictions would affect Washington Post correspondents and local staff.”
  • ABC News and CBS News said they would, for now, refrain from broadcasting from Russia — but did not say its journalists would leave or otherwise stop working.
  • The New York Times wouldn’t comment on its response to its own reporters.

Unfortunately, Russian news organizations lack the legal flexibility that comes with having your headquarters an ocean or a continent away. Dmitry Muratov — editor-in-chief of Russian newspaper Novaya Gazeta, recently seen winning a Nobel Peace Prize — told the Times last week that “his newspaper Novaya Gazeta, which survived the murders of six of its journalists, could be on the verge of shutting down.” Then on Friday it announced its own response to government threats:

Russia’s Novaya Gazeta newspaper, whose editor Dmitry Muratov was a co-winner of last year’s Nobel Peace Prize, said on Friday it would remove material on Russia’s military actions in Ukraine from its website because of censorship. The newspaper said it would continue to report on the consequences that Russia is facing, including a deepening economic crisis and the persecution of dissidents.

“Military censorship in Russia has quickly moved into a new phase: from the threat of blocking and closing publications (almost fully implemented) it has moved to the threat of criminal prosecution of both journalists and citizens who spread information about military hostilities that is different from the press releases of the Ministry of Defense,” the paper said in a message to readers. “There is no doubt that this threat will be realised.”

The newspaper said it could not risk the freedom of its staff but also could not ignore its readers’ desire for it to continuing working, even under military censorship. It said it was therefore removing materials “on this topic” from its website and social networks.

“We continue to report on the consequences that Russia is facing: the developing economic crisis, the rapid decline in living standards, problems with access to foreign medicines and technologies, and the persecution of dissidents, including for anti-war statements,” it said.

(Note: The material that Novaya Gazeta is taking down still exists on the Internet Archive’s Wayback Machine. Combine this page with the translation service of your choice and you can still benefit from Novaya’s recent reporting. Unfortunately, even the best digital archiving can’t protect the stories independent Russian journalists would have been writing tomorrow, or next week, or next month.)

By one report, more than 150 Russian journalists have fled the country in recent days.

Combine this censorship with a new and more aggressive round of blocking websites by the Kremlin — including Facebook, Twitter, and a host of international news sites, including Latvia-based Meduza — and you’ve got a level of press suppression unknown in Internet-age Europe. Here’s Meduza, saying “We ain’t done yet”:

On March 1, 2022 — what feels like a century ago — we sent a message to our newsletter subscribers, warning that the Russian authorities planned to block Meduza along with the last remnants of the country’s independent news media. That has now come to pass. Hours ago, we received confirmation that the Federal Service for Supervision in the Sphere of Telecom, Information Technologies, and Mass Communications (known more commonly as Roskomnadzor) is now requiring Internet service providers inside Russia to block access to Meduza’s website.

We and a handful of other outlets are accused of “disseminating information in violation of the law.” This attack on the free press is happening because the Kremlin has something to hide — because it has more in store. Put simply, we have been banned for reporting information from sources other than the Russian state itself, particularly when it comes to the invasion of Ukraine, which Roskomnadzor has made it unlawful to call either an invasion or a war.

But Russia is at war with Ukraine. This war is an unprovoked act of aggression by the Russian state against the people of Ukraine. Meduza rejects any attempt to limit our freedom to report the truth about this conflict or any other subject. The Russian authorities can try to stop the public from seeing our journalism, but they will fail. We have prepared for this. Meduza has a mobile app, we have an enormous audience on social media, and we distribute newsletters over email. Our readers will also still be able to reach us using VPNs.

There’s one challenge for which we are not prepared, however. Ninety percent of the donations we receive come through the payment systems Stripe and PayPal. Our readers in Russia want to keep supporting us, but now their bank cards are being rejected. Additionally, economic sanctions against Russia’s financial sector create serious risks for our crowdfunding, forcing us to prepare for the worst.

We are relying especially on you, our international audience, to help sustain our work.

Relying on VPNs or a mobile app might work for people who already had them installed on their devices, but Russia’s blocking of Apple and Google’s app stores will make it difficult for anyone inspired to download one now. And Russia has already shown the capacity to block the “dark web” Tor Network, a common route around state censorship.

As Robert Mahoney, executive director of the Committee to Project Journalists, put it:

President Vladimir Putin has plunged Russia into an information dark age by criminalizing independent reporting of his war in Ukraine. Mention of the word “invasion” in a report could now get a journalist sent to jail for years.

Journalists everywhere must stand in solidarity with their Russian colleagues and foreign correspondents based in Russia in rejecting this barbarous censorship. For his last two decades in power Putin tolerated a handful of critical news outlets that provided a trickle of truth in a sea of state propaganda. But this legislation and website blocking have effectively dried up the free flow of information.

POSTED     March 7, 2022, 2:33 p.m.
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