Russian journalism chained by the Kremlin’s systemic censorship
For the past six months, independent and opposition journalists in Russia have been prevented from covering the activities of Russia’s armed forces by the threat of 15 years in prison. The law adopted on 4 March was just the first in a series of anti-media laws. After analysing these additions to the Kremlin’s legislative arsenal, Reporters Without Borders (RSF) calls on Russia’s legislators to stop producing these draconian laws, which have triggered a mass exodus of journalists.
Under the law adopted on 4 March – a major amendment to the 2019 law on disinformation – publishing information about the Russian armed forces that is deemed to be “false” or to have “discredited” them is punishable by up to 15 years in prison. As well as this law, itself amended several times since then, at least six other equally Orwellian laws have been hastily adopted since Russia launched its invasion of Ukraine.
“The 4 March law imposes de facto war censorship in Russia because courts that do the government’s bidding are left to decide what constitutes the ‘false information’ about the armed forces that is punishable by 15 years in prison,” said Jeanne Cavelier, the head of RSF’s Eastern Europe and Central Asia desk. “Hundreds of journalists have left since the introduction of this heavy sentence, while those who remain now have to work in an almost clandestine manner. We support those independent Russian journalists who courageously resist the blows from Vladimir Putin and his cronies, and we call on Russia’s parliamentarians to stop pumping out these draconian laws.”
On 22 March, this disinformation law was extended to Russian state bodies operating abroad – the president and the president’s staff, the Federal Security Service (FSB), embassies, the federal tourism agency and so on. The earlier version of this disinformation law, which has existed since 2019, already punished “socially significant” unreliable information on such matters as rouble exchange rate falls, price rises, epidemics and natural disasters. In practice, any information that does not come from the government can be banned. Only information provided by the Russian defence ministry is considered reliable.
More than 4,000 people, including journalists, have been prosecuted under this law in the past six months, and 224 of them are facing a possible prison sentence, according to the latest report by OVD-Info, a Russian human rights NGO. Posting a link on social media to a major international media story about Russian army massacres in the Ukrainian city of Bucha, for example, is all it takes to incur prosecution.
The prosecutor – an all-powerful censor
On 6 April, the Duma (the Russian parliament) passed a law on public portrayal of the roles played by the Soviet Union and Nazi Germany, under which “denial of the Soviet Union’s humanitarian mission in the liberation of the countries of Europe” is punishable by 15 days in prison. “Every Soviet soldier must always be presented as a highly moral and humanistic hero,” said the Mass Media Defence Centre (MMDC), a Russian human rights NGO, in its legal analysis of this law.
In another innovation, the prosecutor general’s office can now legally suspend any media outlet (print, radio, TV or website), or prevent its registration without reference to a court. Under amendments adopted on 30 June, the suspension can be immediate and without prior notice, and therefore without giving the media outlet a chance to delete the disputed content to avoid this sanction. These amendments target publications containing any information considered “false,” “disrespectful towards the authorities”; discrediting the armed forces or state bodies, or calling for demonstrations or sanctions, for propaganda and for defending “extremism.”
In the event of repeated offences – if the media outlet is found to have published more than one example of content of this kind – the extrajudicial suspension can continue indefinitely. And if a media outlet’s registration is found to be invalid, other people can establish a clone of the media – liable to disseminate propaganda – under the same name the next day, the MMDC warns. At the same time, foreign media can be shut down as a retaliatory measure if they are registered in countries that have imposed restrictions on Russian media. As the Russian state TV broadcaster RT is now banned in the European Union, this means any European media can now be targeted in Russia.
A law adopted on 29 June consolidated the stigmatising “foreign agent” label, which can be imposed on any person who has received international support or is “under foreign influence” and who carries out political activities, collects information on military and military-technical activities, disseminates messages to the general public or participates in their creation. Journalists are therefore on the front line of this legislation.
A total of 172 journalists and journalistic entities are currently on the “foreign agents” register, as against no more than a dozen before December 2020. Those on the register must declare that they are “foreign agents” at the top of everything they publish. The “Foreign agent” status aims to discredit media and journalists in the eyes of their readers. It also imposes a heavy administrative burden, particularly the obligation to provide the justice ministry with statements of all income and expenses. Failure to comply with these obligations is punishable by fines or imprisonment of up to five years.
Expanded, vaguely-defined “national interests”
Other vaguely-worded amendments adopted in the past six months aim to censor and intimidate journalists under the guise of protecting Russia's national interests. Journalists now risk up to eight years in prison for “collaborating” with an international organisation, for example. This vague concept could also include the use by journalists of foreign sources. They also risk seven years in prison for “activities undermining state security,” including revealing state secrets or participating in an organisation classified as “undesirable.”
This classification applies to several Russian investigative media – including The Insider, Vazhnye Istorii (Important Stories) and Proekt – and to Bellingcat, an independent international collective of researchers, investigators and journalists. Any mention of these media and any reference to their investigations into such subjects as the Panama Papers and Putin's alleged assets is a crime in Russia punishable by imprisonment. Legislators also broadened the definition of actions regarded as espionage, which is punishable by up to 20 years in prison. Under another amendment, carrying an ad for an international Internet company that does not comply with the requirements of Russian law, such as Google or YouTube, is punishable by a fine of up to 6 million roubles (around 100,000 euros).
No journalist is immune from serious charges and several are arrested every week and subjected to interrogations and searches. Andrei Soldatov, an investigative journalist who specialises in reporting on Russia’s special services, has been the subject of criminal proceedings for “false information” about the war since 17 March. He wrote about the purge within the FSB department that provided Vladimir Putin with data on Ukraine on the eve of the invasion.
Sergei Mikhailov, the owner of Listock, a small independent newspaper in Eastern Siberia’s Altai Republic, was arrested on 14 April and is facing up to 15 years in prison for publishing articles about the Bucha massacre and other subjects related to the invasion of Ukraine. Mikhail Afanasiev, the editor of the online magazine Novy Focus, who was arrested on 13 April, is also charged with “false information” in connection with an article about riot police in Khakassia (Eastern Siberia) who refused to take part in the war.
27 media closed
Hundreds of individuals working in the media sphere have fled Russia because of the direct threat posed by these new laws, which have compounded its already repressive legislation (see our report on Internet censorship). At least 27 media have closed or suspended their activities in Russia in the past six months, according to OVD-Info. They include such leading foreign media as the BBC, CNN and CBC/Radio Canada, which left the country after 4 March because of the danger to their Russian employees and contributors.
According to Roskomsvoboda, a Russian NGO that combats Internet censorship, no fewer than 7,000 websites have been blocked since the start of the war. They include Russia’s most popular news site, Meduza, which RSF unblocked by creating a mirror site, and dozens of other media, including Deutsche Welle, The New Times and Novaya Gazeta Europe. Yandex, the leading search engine for Russian speakers, has meanwhile tightened its censorship, removing independent media from its search results.
In tandem with this wartime censorship, Russia’s government-dominated mainstream media strictly follow the Kremlin-imposed editorial line, and propaganda is ubiquitous on the most-watched state TV channels such as Rossiya 1 and Perviy Kanal, which have increased the airtime devoted to news programmes. “We are not the aggressor", Rossiya 1 star anchor Vladimir Soloviev (the subject of Western sanctions) said on 21 June, in a tirade castigating “Ukrainian Nazis” and threatening “traitors” and Western countries. “Zelenskiy is the last president of Ukraine because there will be no more Ukraine after him”, he said in an earlier warmongering tirade on 8 April.
To burst the propaganda bubble, independent journalists try to keep reporting the real news, either from abroad or from within Russia, often under cover. So that they can resume working as quickly as possible, RSF and its partners launched a European fund last April, the JX Fund, which supports Russian exile media projects. On 1 September, the JX Fund launched an information platform with the MMDC to help journalists relocate outside Russia.