Russian President Vladimir Putin’s creeping authoritarianism got a lot more overt on Friday when he signed a censorship bill into law making it impossible for news organizations to accurately report the news in or from Russia.
The law, according to the Committee to Protect Journalists, makes it a crime to disseminate “fake” information about the invasion of Ukraine, with a penalty of up to 15 years in prison for anyone convicted.
The definition of “fake” is, of course, left up to the Russian government. The New York Times reported that the law, which could take effect as soon as Saturday, could make it illegal to merely refer to the Ukraine war as a war.
The law prompted urgent meetings inside news outlets on Friday and pushed them to make difficult decisions.
The BBC, bluntly saying that the law “appears to criminalize the process of independent journalism,” said that it had no choice but to “temporarily suspend the work” of its journalists and staff in Russia as it assesses the “full implications of this unwelcome development.”
CNN said the network “will stop broadcasting in Russia while we continue to evaluate the situation and our next steps moving forward.”
ABC News and CBS News both said that their networks were temporarily refraining from broadcasting from Russia.
Reading between the lines, this means that international correspondents in Moscow are staying in the city, but are not appearing on TV for the time being.
Newswires and newspapers also expressed profound concern.
Bloomberg News said that it will suspend the work of its journalists inside Russia, with editor in chief John Micklethwait saying that the law “seems designed to turn any independent reporter into a criminal purely by association, makes it impossible to continue any semblance of normal journalism inside the country.”
The Washington Post said it intends to “exercise caution while seeking clarity about how these reported restrictions would affect Washington Post correspondents and local staff.”
The Wall Street Journal said that its “top priorities are the safety of our employees and covering this important story fairly and fully.”
And Reuters said it is, too, assessing the situation.
While the full ramifications of the law remain unclear, it clearly marks a major escalation in Putin’s efforts to cut back on press freedoms as he works to exert firmer control of the narrative around Ukraine.
It’s also the culmination of years and years of work from Putin aimed at curbing reporting from Russia. Many journalists feared such a strict clampdown could occur one day, though they hoped it would not…
More news sites are blocked
In addition to the harsh new law handicapping media outlets, the Russian media regulator, Roskomnadzor, blocked several western news sites on Friday.
“The number of independent media voices Russians can read and watch is dropping fast,” CNN’s Anna Cooban wrote. “Russian authorities have restricted access to news publications including BBC Russia, Radio Liberty, and Latvia-based Meduza, RIA Novosti reported on Friday.”
Plus, “Russian independent paper Novaya Gazeta said that it is removing articles on the war in Ukraine, saying that new Russian censorship efforts necessitated removing those materials…”
>> The BBC is offering instructions for readers to get around the blockade. It is also making news coverage available “via the Tor network, in a bid to thwart censorship attempts…”
Russia retaliates against Facebook, too
The Russian media regulator also said it would take action against Facebook and block the site – a move that would be a major blow to the concept of a free and open internet. In a statement, Roskomnadzor cited Facebook’s moves in recent days to impose restrictions on Russia-controlled media outlets.
Nick Clegg, president of global affairs for Meta, FB’s parent company, said the company “will continue to do everything” it can to continue providing services so that people can “safely and securely express themselves and organize for action.”
>> Of note: The regulator said it had chosen to block Facebook, but notably did not include Instagram and WhatsApp in its statement…
>> Donie O’Sullivan’s point: “Hard to overstate how big the information war story has developed over this past week. Big Tech kicking Russian propaganda off its platforms — sometimes at the urging of governments. Russia turning off Facebook entirely…”
White House “deeply concerned”
At Friday’s WH briefing, Jen Psaki addressed what she referred to as “concerning steps” Russia has taken in efforts to “cut off a range of information from their public.”
Psaki noted it is “a pattern” of Russia’s to “crack down on information in their country to reach the Russian people.” She said the WH is “deeply concerned about this and and concerned about the threat on freedom of speech in the country…”
A version of this article first appeared in the “Reliable Sources” newsletter. You can sign up for free right here.