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Moscow Warns Russian Media Over War Coverage

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A person holds a sign that reads "We are against war" during a protest against Russian invasion of Ukraine, after President Vladimir Putin authorized a massive military operation, in Moscow, Feb. 27, 2022.

Russia’s media regulator is warning independent news outlets to not report negatively on the war in Ukraine, including on troop causalities.

The regulator, Roskomnadzor, issued letters to at least 10 media outlets, including Novaya Gazeta, run by Nobel Peace laureate Dmitry Muratov, and Current Time, a Russian-language digital news network led by Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty and VOA.

On Monday, Russia blocked access to Current Time and RFE/RL’s Crimea.Realities website, in an apparent response to them not complying with the order, RFE/RL confirmed to VOA.

RFE/RL and VOA are independent networks under the taxpayer funded U.S. Agency for Global Media.

Separately, police briefly detained several journalists covering anti-war protests in Moscow and St. Petersburg, and authorities limited access to social media platforms.

“From the start of the invasion of Ukraine, the Russian authorities have tried to put a tight lid over independent reporting,” media rights expert Gulnoza Said told VOA.

Said is the Europe and Central Asia program coordinator for the New York-based Committee to Protect Journalists (CPJ).

Regulator warnings

Roskomnadzor issued a statement Friday warning that media should use only government sources when covering the war.

Warnings were later issued to several news sites, who were told they could be fined or have websites blocked if they failed to remove content that Moscow deems false or that details troop movements.

Media were told Russia’s actions in Ukraine should not be described as an “assault, invasion or declaration of war.”

Several of the outlets reported on Russian shelling of Ukrainian cities and civilian causalities, according to the Organization for Security and Co-operation in Europe (OSCE) said.

Some of those to receive warnings are listed by Moscow as foreign agents. Under that designation, media outlets are prohibited from reporting on troops to a foreign entity.

Russia’s Ministry of Justice has labeled more than 40 news outlets and individual journalists as foreign agents. The move is an attempt to quell dissent and damage the credibility of independent media, analysts previously told VOA.

Moscow strengthened the law in response to the U.S. in 2017 ordering Russian-backed media to register as foreign agents.

RFE/RL president Jamie Fly has said on Twitter that Current Time will not comply with the regulator’s order.

“The Kremlin’s threats are a blatant attempt to whitewash the brutal facts about the human cost of [Russian President Vladimir] Putin’s illegal war against Ukraine,” Fly said in a statement, adding, “We will not succumb to this pressure to deprive [our audience] of the truth.”

VOA acting director Yolanda Lopez said Monday that the networks would continue to engage with audiences in Russia “despite the censorship attempts by the Kremlin.”

“The credibility of our journalism is what attracts the Russian audience,” Lopez said in a statement. “[The RFE/RL audience] deserves access to free press and open discussion, which the authoritarian regime in Moscow is trying to suppress.”

The OSCE, along with media watchdogs including CPJ and the Vienna-based International Press Institute (IPI) have condemned Russia’s actions against media.

“We strongly oppose the attempts by the government and security forces to threaten media outlets into silence with fines or stifle independent journalism which threatens to puncture the Kremlin’s narrative,” IPI Deputy Director Scott Griffen said in a statement.

Griffen described arrests of journalists in Moscow and St. Petersburg as “a worrying sign of the increasing censorship likely to follow.”

State-media sanctions

Roskomnadzor also signaled that it will limit access to social media. The announcement came after Facebook restricted the accounts of four Russian media sites and labelled content from state-run media.

The OSCE media freedom representative Teresa Ribeiro on Sunday called on Russia to “safeguard the free flow of information and media freedom in line with OSCE commitments and international obligations.”

“The attempts to unduly interfere in the work of social networks, which enable individuals to communicate, access and disseminate information and ideas, are of serious concern,” she said in a statement.

The European Union on Sunday said it would ban Russian-backed media including RT, formerly Russia Today, and Sputnik.

European Commission president Ursula von der Leyen said the EU is “developing tools to ban their toxic and harmful disinformation.”

Poland’s broadcasting council confirmed to VOA on Monday it has banned RT and other Russian state-backed media in response to the war in Ukraine.

Some French politicians are calling for the network’s license to be revoked and Britain has asked its media regulator to monitor the network for “disinformation.”

Amid tensions earlier this month Germany’s regulators on February 2 announced that RT’s German programing did not have the required licensing to operate in the country.

RT editor-in-chief Margarita Simonyan was cited as saying the EU is using Russia’s invasion as an excuse to close the network.

Other Russian state news agencies have been targeted by hackers including the Tass news agency.

A screenshot of the site’s homepage, shared on social media Monday, displayed a message in Russian that read: “We urge you to stop this madness. Do not send your sons and husbands to certain death.”

Reuters verified that the anti-war message appeared on the site’s homepage.

Part of the message read: “Putin is forcing us to lie and is putting us in danger.”

Media push back

In a show of solidarity with Ukraine, Novaya Gazeta on Friday published in Russian and Ukrainian.

In a video, Nobel laureate and editor-in-chief Muratov said, “We will never recognize Ukraine as an enemy and the Ukrainian language as the enemy’s language.”

Journalists from Novaya Gazeta are among 200 Russian media workers to sign an open letter opposing the war.

“War has never been and never will be a method of resolving conflicts, and there is no justification for it,” the letter read.

CPJ’s Said commended “those independent media outlets that are brave to report on the invasion freely and condemn the war.”

In Ukraine, local and foreign journalists have not reported facing any restrictions, Said told VOA, adding, “When the war started, we heard that the Ukrainian authorities canceled accreditation requirements for all journalists in Ukraine.”

The OSCE’s Ribeiro also underscored the important role media is playing during conflict.

She called on Moscow “to refrain from undermining professional and courageous journalism, which importantly contributes through their objective and professional reporting to keeping the public informed.”

Some information is from Reuters, AP, and AFP.

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