While President Putin’s regime has been known for its propaganda and censorship efforts, in recent weeks, since the start of the war in Ukraine, the situation has worsened dramatically. Escalating media shutdowns—imposed by the Russian government and the companies themselves because of the increased sanctions—have affected news outlets, social media and streaming services.
Last week Russian authorities blocked Facebook and restricted access to Twitter. In response, Twitter has banned accounts belonging to RT and Sputnik in the European Union—in accord with EU sanctions. These media outlets are often accused of promoting a pro-Putin agenda. Instagram began marking pages of pro-Putin or state-funded outlets with a “Russian state-controlled media” tag. TikTok chose to temporarily stop allowing users in Russia to post on the platform, and Netflix suspended its streaming services inside the country. This list of restrictions goes on and expands to messengers such as Telegram and larger platforms such as YouTube, OnlyFans, Twitch, and others. Notably, the platforms with restricted or blocked access can still be accessed from Russia through a VPN service “placing” you in a different country.
Arguably, the worst of this censorship hit the press. There have been multiple new laws implemented to prevent the media from publishing anything divergent from the official “party line” of Putin’s government. Here’s a breakdown of a few of them, as analyzed by Novaya Gazeta:
- Criminal Code of Russia, article 207.3: “Public dissemination of preemptively false information about the use of the Russian military.” Breaking this law can be punished by up to 3 years in prison and a fine of 1.5 million rubles if there was no “selfish” (which can be interpreted widely) motive. With such a motive or if the investigation determines the disseminated information led to damages, the prison sentence can be anywhere between five and 15 years, with the fine rising up to 5 million rubles.
- Criminal Code of Russia, article 280.3: “Public activity aimed at discrediting the use of the Russian military with the goal of protecting Russia and its citizens as well as supporting international peace and safety.” Breaking this law is punished by a fine, lower for individuals and higher for any legal entity, which newsrooms would be considered to be; a person who repeats the offense within one year can be sentenced to three years in prison.
- Criminal Code of Russia, article 284.3: “Calls to and encouragement of restrictive mechanisms [i.e., sanctions] against Russia, Russian citizens, and Russian entities.” Breaking this law can be punished by a fee of half a million rubles and a prison sentence of up to three years if the offense is repeated three times within 180 days.
Novaya Gazeta captioned the Instagram post explaining these newly introduced laws with an ominous line: “From now on a journalist, just like a person working with land mines, can make a mistake only once.” Novaya itself opted to continue to work and publish limited content relating to the war as well as subjects such as torture of the arrested anti-war protesters. The limitations Novaya imposed on itself include: not referring to the war as such and calling it “what the government doesn’t let us name,”as well as pausing its news desk operations so it can continue the coverage of the war without endangering its journalists or the newspaper. Novaya has also removed a number of articles, in accordance with the government’s demands, to avoid the blocking of its website.
Sadly, Novaya was alone in continuing reporting, at least among the Russian media considered free and not “state-controlled.” Echo of Moscow, Novaya Gazeta’s longtime colleague, published numerous anti-war letters, and as a result was taken off air and, then, liquidated on March 3, 2022. TV Rain (also known as Dozhd) had access to its website blocked across Russia and, on March 4, 2022, it paused its operations to navigate the rapidly changing situation and to protect its journalists from possible criminal charges. Unfortunately, the number of outlets unavailable in Russia without a VPN grew and included Meduza, DOXA, and others. IStories (also known as Important Stories) and the Organized Crime and Corruption Reporting Project were even declared “unwanted entities” under the Russian law, meaning any collaboration with them can lead to criminal charges for the collaborator.
What do these grim developments mean for the already weak state of freedom of speech in Russia? It might mean censorship will become absolute, even though there’s still an independent outlet (i.e., Novaya Gazeta) operating inside the country. The reality, while bleak, might worsen once journalists begin getting arrested. The independent press in Russia as well as the Russian media in exile need the international community’s support now more than ever. There’s an idea spreading among some editors in Russia to support organizations such as Reporters Without Borders as well as potentially setting up a separate non-profit to enable journalists from across the globe in exile to continue their work. While foreigners can’t donate to Russia-based outlets without repercussions for said outlets, you can donate to the Committee to Protect Journalists and Reporters Without Borders, each working with the Russian press. But, most importantly, just don’t stop paying attention. Don’t avert your eyes from the devastating news. If you follow the war in Ukraine and the censorship in Russia you will find out in time once an action item arises.