The Kremlin is “tightening the screws” on how media inside Russia can report on its war in Ukraine, media analysts say.
Moscow issued new directives to the media in late September, following Russia’s announcement of a partial military mobilization to try to bolster its troops.
Under the new regulations, media organizations must use only data and information from federal and regional executive bodies when reporting on mobilization efforts.
Failure to comply could result in news outlets being blocked or fined up to 5 million rubles (US $82,000), according to the Russian media regulator Roskomnadzor.
Russia has imposed a series of regulations on the media since it invaded Ukraine in February, including directives to call the war a “special operation,” and a new law penalizing spreading “false news” about the army. A violation of the latter carries a 15-year prison sentence.
Several news organizations ceased operations and others had licenses revoked, including Novaya Gazeta, whose editor, Dmitry Muratov, is the 2021 Nobel Peace laureate. Authorities on September 5 stripped Muratov’s independent news outlet of its license.
Others, including VOA and the BBC, saw access blocked to their Russian-language content.
“The authorities have continued tightening the screws as [they] attempt to establish a full control over the narrative of the war and the current situation in Russia as well as the world’s reaction to it,” wrote Gulnoza Said, the Europe and Central Asia program coordinator for the Committee to Protect Journalists (CPJ), in an email to VOA.
Amid mass protests across Russia against mobilization, at least 16 journalists have been briefly detained, and some have been convicted of taking part in unsanctioned rallies, according to CPJ and media reports.
Among those detained is Yulia Vishnevetskaya, a freelance journalist who contributes to Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty (RFE/RL).
Vishnevetskaya was convicted of taking part in an unsanctioned rally after being arrested alongside protesters in Dagestan, RFE/RL reported. She was sentenced to five days in prison, her lawyer said Wednesday.
RFE/RL President Jamie Fly condemned the conviction, saying in a statement, “Yulia was only doing her job, reporting the truth for the Russian people.”
VOA’s email to the Russian Embassy in Washington, requesting comment, was returned as “undeliverable.” A woman who answered a phone call to the embassy said she did not know whom VOA should be referred to, but that she would provide an email address. She then ended the call.
The restrictions on Russia’s media add to an already repressive environment, analysts say.
According to media watchdog Reporters Without Borders (RSF), all media are subject to military censorship and, since the war, “almost all independent media have been banned, blocked and/or declared ‘foreign agents.’ ”
Russia ranks 155th out of 180 countries, where 1 has the best conditions for the media, on RSF’s Press Freedom Index.
Natalia Krapiva, a tech-legal counsel for the digital rights nonprofit Access Now, said the situation for press freedom in Russia has been “deteriorating” for years.
But the situation has escalated within the past two to three years, she told VOA.
The Kremlin in 2017 expanded its foreign agent law to include media, in response to the U.S. making Russian state media register under its Foreign Agent Registration Act (FARA).
Under FARA, companies under foreign government control must report activities to the U.S. Justice Department.
But under Russian law, foreign media outlets must label all content as having been produced by a “foreign agent.” Failure to comply results in fines and the possibility of criminal charges.
VOA and its sister network RFE/RL are among those listed as foreign agents.
In July 2022, Russia’s President Vladimir Putin signed a bill to expand the law to include anyone found to be “under foreign influence.” The amendment is due to go into effect on December 1, RFE/RL reported.
Krapiva said Russia’s foreign agent law created distrust of media among citizens.
“They are afraid that they might be somehow designated as foreign agents if they talk to journalists who are foreign agents or associated with media foreign agents, so definitely it created this chilling effect,” Krapiva said.
The increasingly strict regulations on war coverage have hindered access to credible news inside Russia.
In the first week of the invasion, authorities blocked access to at least eight Russian and several Ukrainian media outlets, and others suspended operations, according to Human Rights Watch.
At least 150 journalists fled Russia in the early part of the year, and within weeks of the new law on false news going into effect, authorities opened around 60 cases, Human Rights Watch research found.
The restrictions are bringing independent media to the brink of erasure, Krapiva said. The impact extends to Western media that rely on local reporters in Russia for information.
CPJ, which has been helping Russian journalists relocate since the start of the war, has seen an increase in requests for assistance since Putin announced the partial mobilization, Said told VOA.
“It's very dangerous to be an independent journalist in Russia,” Said added. “We have seen many journalists who tried to report on anti-mobilization protests being detained, arrested and tried.”