The United States said Wednesday that Russia “is engaged in a full assault on media freedom and the truth” after Moscow’s media regulator blocked multiple media outlets and threatened to block access to VOA’s Russia news network.
State Department spokesperson Ned Price said Russia’s efforts to “mislead and suppress the truth” of the country’s invasion of Ukraine are intensifying, and that the Russian people deserve to know the truth about what is happening.
“We call upon [Russian President Vladimir] Putin and his government to honor Russia’s international obligations and commitments, to immediately cease this bloodshed, withdraw its troops from Ukraine’s territory, and to respect the human rights and fundamental freedoms of their own citizens,” Price said in a statement.
In a notice sent to VOA, the regulator, Roskomnadzor, said Wednesday that the network’s Russian-language site had 24 hours to remove content that Moscow deems “illegal” or be blocked.
In another sign of the importance all sides attach to how the war is reported to their publics, the European Union announced Wednesday a ban on broadcasts and websites affiliated with Russian state-funded media outlets RT and Sputnik for spreading disinformation.
VOA Acting Director Yolanda Lopez said the network was aware of the media regulator's order but could not comply.
“This kind of accurate, credible journalism is the reason why our audience in Russia engages with VOA. We find any attempts to interfere with the free flow of information deeply troubling and consider this order in direct opposition to the values of all democratic societies,” Lopez said in a statement.
“The Russian people deserve unfettered access to a free press and, therefore, we cannot comply with the Roskomnadzor's request,” she added.
The VOA news website is one of a dozen media outlets to be blocked or threatened with fines by Roskomnadzor since Russia invaded Ukraine.
Most warnings relate to content that Moscow deems to be false or that gives information about troops and casualties.
Current Time, a daily news show produced by Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty, in partnership with VOA, and RFE/RL’s Crimea.Realities were blocked on Sunday.
RFE/RL and VOA are independent, taxpayer-funded networks under the U.S. Agency for Global Media.
U.S. Representative Michael McCaul on Wednesday said Moscow’s “manipulation and censorship of the media is appalling.”
“The Russian people deserve access to the truth about Russia’s unprovoked war of aggression and instead are being fed lies by the Putin regime. The U.S. must continue to robustly support independent media to counter Russian propaganda and disinformation,” McCaul, the ranking member of the House Foreign Affairs Committee, told VOA.
On Tuesday, Roskomnadzor removed the independent broadcasters TV Dozhd and Ekho Moskvy from the airwaves.
Ekho Moskvy’s chief editor, Alexei Venediktov, said the station would contest the regulator’s decision in court, The Associated Press reported.
"We see a political component in it, as well as the introduction of censorship, which is directly prohibited by the Russian Constitution," Venediktov said.
The regulator’s warning to VOA came on the same day that the European Union said it would ban Russian state media including Sputnik and RT. EU operators will be banned from broadcasting, facilitating or otherwise contributing to the dissemination of content from Sputnik and RT.
"Systematic information manipulation and disinformation by the Kremlin is applied as an operational tool in its assault on Ukraine," EU foreign policy chief Josep Borrell said in a statement.
Social media platforms including Facebook and YouTube said they would comply with the ban.
Roskomnadzor on Wednesday appealed to Facebook’s parent company, Meta, to lift restrictions on the Rossiya Segodnya group that oversees Sputnik and RT.
In a statement, the regulator said the restrictions prevented internet users from accessing “independent sources and aim to create distorted perception of the events.”
The international community and media watchdogs have condemned attempts by Russia’s media regulator to censor or restrict independent reporting on the war in Ukraine.
On Sunday, Teresa Ribeiro, media freedom representative for the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe, called on Russia to “safeguard the free flow of information and media freedom in line with OSCE commitments and international obligations.”
The Association for International Broadcasting (AIB) described Roskomnadzor’s actions against Ekho Moskvy and Dozhd TV as concerning, saying their “news and information services have been essential for Russian citizens.”
“The AIB stands in solidarity with all journalists and media colleagues who are bringing essential news and information from Ukraine to audiences in the country and around the world,” AIB Chief Executive Simon Spanswick told VOA via email. “It is essential that they are allowed to work unhindered and without threat to them and their families."
The New York-based Committee to Protect Journalists also decried Moscow’s attempts to block news.
“Russian authorities’ restricting of social media platforms and independent media outlets is clear censorship and undermines the free flow of information,” CPJ Program Director Carlos Martinez de la Serna said Tuesday.
VOA’s Russian-language service is a 24/7 TV and digital news network aimed audiences in Russia, where access to independent news is limited.