Radio Free Europe and Radio Liberty are the latest Western news outlets to suspend operations in Russia since the passage of a new law imposing a 15-year prison term for spreading “false news” on Russian military operations.
In a statement late Saturday RFE/RL President & CEO Jamie Fly said the decision to close its Russian offices was not taken lightly.
“This is not a decision that RFE/RL has taken of its own accord, but one that has been forced upon us by the Putin regime’s assault on the truth. Following years of threats, intimidation and harassment of our journalists, the Kremlin, desperate to prevent Russian citizens from knowing the truth about its illegal war in Ukraine, is now branding honest journalists as traitors to the Russian state.”
The statement said RFE/RL would continue to report on developments in Russia from outside the country.
Access to Western news outlets, including parts of Voice of America and the BBC, were blocked by Russia’s media watchdog Friday.
Moscow restricted several sites over “deliberate and systematic circulation of materials containing false information,” the media regulator Roskomnadzor said in a statement.
Requests to block the news websites were made on Feb. 24, the day Russia invaded Ukraine, Agence-France Presse reported.
Since that date, Moscow has ordered media to refer to the war as a “special military operation.”
The regulator has issued dozens of warnings to independent media, ordering them to remove content or risk being fined or blocked.
In Washington, White House National Security Council spokesperson Emily Horne issued a statement Saturday applauding steps by governments and other institutions to condemn “[Russian President Vladimir] Putin’s war of choice,” including “those that call out and contest the Russian Government’s further efforts to undermine the free press and spread disinformation.”
“With our partners, we will continue to condemn Russia’s shuttering of independent media and technology platforms that refuse to allow Putin to run his disinformation campaigns unchecked,” the statement said.
Kelu Chao, acting CEO of the U.S. Agency for Global Media, which oversees RFE/RL, Voice of America, and other networks providing unbiased news and information in countries where the press is restricted, said in a statement Friday, “It is clear that by restricting access to RFE/RL and VOA’s fact-based reporting, the Kremlin hopes to keep its own citizens in the dark and to hide the truth.”
“The people of Russia deserve to know the facts about their government’s attacks on Ukraine and how the world is reacting. USAGM will continue to use its resources to bring unbiased information to light at this crucial time,” she said.
Acting VOA Director Yolanda López said, “The recent threat by the Russian media regulator Roskomnadzor to block VOA and other independent media outlets now is a reality for many in our audience there. Our viewers and listeners in Russia deserve access to our factual news content at this critical time, not only about the ongoing war in Ukraine, but also about all vital global events that impact their lives and actions. VOA will continue to promote and support tools and resources that will allow our audiences to bypass any blocking efforts imposed on our sites in Russia. Our journalists will continue their reporting, an example of free press in action.”
As of Friday, VOA’s Russian language news website was available via a VPN in Moscow, but its English-language website remained open.
VOA, RFE/RL and BBC issued statements saying they will keep reporting and producing news for Russian audiences.
RFE/RL and VOA are both independent taxpayer-funded networks under the U.S. Agency for Global Media.
RFE/RL president Fly said the ban was an attempt to block reporting on the realities of the war.
“[President Vladimir] Putin is feeding Russians a steady diet of lies about the scope and cost of the war in Ukraine,” Fly said in a statement. “RFE/RL refuses to censor our content at this critical moment for our Russian audiences.”
The BBC said that “independent information is a fundamental human right” and it will operate from outside Russia.
The British broadcaster on Wednesday announced it will provide up to four hours of news a day to Ukraine and parts of Russia via shortwave radio, a return to how it operated in the Cold War.
It said Friday it is “temporarily suspending” the work of its staff in Russia, citing a new media law.
The European Union, social media platforms and TV providers in the United States, Africa, and Canada separately moved to block Russian-backed media including RT and Sputnik.
Ukraine’s president alleged Saturday that 10,000 Russian troops have been killed in 10 days of war. Russia’s Defense Ministry said Wednesday nearly 500 troops have been killed and 1,500 wounded. None of those numbers can be independently confirmed and civilian casualty totals are unknown. The United Nations estimates nearly 1.5 million refugees have fled Ukraine.
Russia’s embassies also sought to correct what Moscow sees as inaccurate reporting.
The Facebook page of the Russian Embassy in Myanmar on March 2 posted a series of counterresponses to what it said was “inadequate information” published by local media.
The post repeated Russian claims that the war was an operation aimed at the “demilitarization and denazification” of Ukraine and that its military does not attack civilians or cities.
Independent media have documented extensive damage to residential buildings and civilian structures.
The New York-based Committee to Protect Journalists on Friday said Russia has “moved quickly to establish total censorship.”
“The Russian public cannot be deprived of information and news and be forced to rely on the Kremlin-approved interpretation of events,” Gulnoza Said, CPJ’s Europe and Central Asia program coordinator, said in a statement. “The censorship must stop.”
Russia also moved to impose heavy penalties for what it deems false news on military movements.
The State Duma on Friday voted in a new law that would carry 15-year prison terms for false news about troops.
The bill, which is also approved by the Federation Council, will be passed along to President Putin to be signed into law.
“This legislation appears to criminalize the process of independent journalism,” BBC Director-General Tim Davie said in a statement Friday. “The safety of our staff is paramount, and we are not prepared to expose them to the risk of criminal prosecution simply for doing their jobs.”
The EU moved this week to sanction Russian-backed media, blocking providers from hosting or broadcasting RT stations and Sputnik. Service providers in the U.S., Canada and South Africa all announced they would drop RT this week.
RT America announced it would cease operations in the U.S. on Thursday after digital service providers dropped its broadcasts.
A senior editor at RT accused the EU and Britain of suppressing media freedom.
"We have long stopped expecting any legitimacy or reason in the U.K.'s attempts to curtail media freedoms," Anna Belkina, RT's deputy editor in chief, told Reuters.
"Now it seems it has forgotten Brexit and is seeking to force influence over the rest of Europe too."
The Vienna-based International Press Institute cautioned that sanctions on Russian state media could result in further repression of independent media in the country.
The EU measures are “understandable and well-intentioned,” the IPI said, but “decisions on whether to ban media should be taken by independent regulators."
“These bans may be used to justify reciprocal measures by Russia to restrict foreign media operating within the country,” the IPI added.
The U.S. Agency for Global Media says it is working with experts in security and technology, including via the Open Technology Fund, to protect journalists and keep news flowing in Russia.
“We are making available a variety of tools to help audiences and local independent journalists circumvent internet censorship," spokesperson Laurie Moy told VOA. “The blocking of our networks will not deter USAGM from getting fact-based and reliable information to the people of Russia."
Some information in this report came from The Associated Press, Reuters and Agence France-Presse.