The story so far: Global media outlets BBC and Bloomberg said on Friday, March 4, that they were temporarily halting reporting in Russia in the wake of a draft law passed by its Parliament on the same day. Signed amid the country’s ongoing military assault on Ukraine, the law makes it criminally liable to intentionally disseminate “false” or “fake” news about the Russian military, with punishment including fines and prison time upto 15 years.
The law was passed by both the Upper and Lower Houses of the Russian Parliament in quick succession and by a unanimous vote. It was signed by the country’s President Vladimir Putin just hours later.
Russian authorities have said multiple times that the country’s enemies such as the United States and European allies spread false information with the intention of spreading disharmony among Russians. Amid the volatile Ukraine standoff, Russia has declared reports about its military’s stumbles or civilian deaths in Ukraine as “fake news”. Russian state-controlled media meanwhile have been repeatedly accused by Western nations and news publications of spreading Kremlin propaganda or simply not acknowledging the assault on Ukraine.
What does the new law say?
On March 3, a group of Deputies submitted amendments to the criminal code to the State Duma (Lower House) of the Russian Federal Assembly. The amendments proposed to criminalise deliberately false information about the country’s military and its actions.
These amendments were introduced to the second reading of a Bill that was introduced in the Federal Assembly in 2018, which intended to impose criminal liability on enforcement of sanctions against Russia.
The Bill, with the added amendments was then passed in both Houses and approved by Mr. Putin on March 4.
The Speaker of the State Duma, Vyacheslav Volodin, said that the law could come into force as early as March 5, adding that “its rules will force those who lied and made statements discrediting our armed forces to bear very grave punishment.”
“I want everyone to understand, and for society to understand, that we are doing this to protect our soldiers and officers, and to protect the truth,” said Mr. Volodin.
According to the amendments, introduced as Article 207.3 in the criminal code, “public dissemination of deliberately false information about the use of the Armed Forces of the Russian Federation”, aside from "public acts aimed at discrediting the use of the Armed Forces of the Russian Federation in order to protect the interests of the Russian Federation and its citizens, maintaining international peace and security” would lead to different scales of punishments from fines to imprisonment.
The amendments say that imprisonment of up to three years could be faced by an individual for manufacturing and distributing of what it terms “fakes” about the army.
A punishment of five to ten years is prescribed if the spreading and creation of “false” news is carried out using an official position in a group (or organisation) or through online means.
Lastly, if the distributor knowingly spreads the false information which leads to “socially dangerous consequences”, they can face prison time of 15 years.
Besides the amendments imposing criminal liability on fake news, the law also makes punishable “discrediting” Russia’s use of its armed forces in Ukraine, which according to observers, essentially means calling it a ‘war’ or ‘invasion’ could instead of Russia’s preferred ‘special military operation’.
Under the law, those calling for foreign countries to impose sanctions on Russia and protesting against its Ukraine incursion would also be liable to punishment.
While it was not initially clear whether the law would be applicable to foreign media correspondents, who report in other languages, but according to a senior lawmaker quoted by The New York Times, individuals from any country could be prosecuted under the law.
Aftermath of the law
Soon after the signing of the law, multiple international news organisations said they would stop their journalists from reporting inside Russia for the time being.
On March 4, BBC Director-General Tim Davie said in a statement that the security of its staffers was paramount and it was not prepared to “expose them to the risk of criminal prosecution simply for doing their jobs”.
“The legislation appears to criminalise the process of independent journalism,” Mr. Davie said, adding that the news outlet was left with no other alternative but to “temporarily suspend the work of all BBC news journalists and their support staff within the Russian Federation”.
The BBC runs a large news bureau in Moscow along with a Russian language news site. “Our news service in Russia will continue to operate from outside Russia,” the company said.
By the end of March 4, Bloomberg and the Canadian Broadcasting Company (CBC) also announced halting of reporting operations in Russia, while CBS News and CNN said they would stop broadcasting in the country. Meanwhile, some other news sites removed the bylines of their Russian-based correspondents while navigating the new legal situation.
Even before the law was signed on March 4, however, Russia’s media regulator, known as Roskomnadzor, had cut access to the website’s of the BBC, Deutsche Welle, Radio Free Europe/ Radio Liberty and Voice of America for spreading of what it claimed was “fake news”.
The Roskomnadzor said that these news outlets had spread false news about the “essence” of Russia’s “special military operation in Ukraine”.
Radio Liberty had received a notice from the media regulator on March 3, saying that the former had spread “obviously fake socially significant information about the alleged Russian attack on Ukraine”.
While this was the case with foreign news producers, the last few independent media outlets in Russia also faced the brunt of its new restrictions before they even became official.
Just before the law was signed, the Roskomnadzor, or Federal Service for Supervision in the field of Telecom, Information Technologies and Mass Communications , had blocked access to the website of Meduza — Russia’s popular independent news platform running largely out of Latvia. After the new law got approved, Meduza’s editor Ivan Koplakov told The Washington Post that they were carrying out an “urgent evacuation” of their Russian staff.
Besides, nine of the most prominent and last surviving independent media platforms in Russia were put on notice since the assault on Ukraine began. One of them was the over 30-year-old radio station Echo of Moscow, which was ordered by the Roskomnadzor to delete any commentary that called the military operation a ‘war’ or ‘invasion’. On Friday, Echo announced that it would close all its corporate social media accounts and turn off its website as part of a “liquidation”. Later it’s popular YouTube channel was gone too.
Another Russian news publisher, Nobel Peace Prize winning editor Dmitry Muratov’s newspaper Novaya Gazeta was met with the same fate, and after the law came in, the paper announced that it would delete all its war reporting.
On March 3, the employees of TV Rain, an independent television broadcaster, together resigned on air during their final broadcast and said “no to war”. The channel also played visuals from Tchaikovsky’s Swan Lake, a ballet performance that has been played in times of political upheaval in Russia since 1991, when Soviet stations played the performance instead of visuals of unrest as the USSR was disintegrating.
Similar Supplementary laws in the past
The new amendments criminalising a form of information or news, is not the first of its kind in Russia.
One of the authors of the new amendments, Russian Deputy Vasily Piskarev, the chairman of the Duma Defence Committee, said that these new articles are supplements to already existing similar changes made two years ago concerning the pandemic.
In 2020, Russia had added articles 207.1 and 207.2 to the criminal code to impose grave liability on knowingly spreading publicly significant fake news about the Coronavirus. Observers had said this was a bid to counter reports criticising the Russian administration’s handling of the pandemic.
Before that, in 2019, Russia had introduced a law criminalising distribution of “fake news” that “disrespects” the government, its institutions, state symbols and the constitution, by individuals and online media.
- On March 3, a group of Deputies submitted amendments to the criminal code to the State Duma (Lower House) of the Russian Federal Assembly. The amendments proposed to criminalise deliberately false information about the country’s military and its actions.
- Under the law, those calling for foreign countries to impose sanctions on Russia and protesting against its Ukraine incursion would also be liable to punishment.
- Soon after the signing of the law, multiple international news organisations said they would stop their journalists from reporting inside Russia for the time being.
- The new amendments criminalising a form of information or news, is not the first of its kind in Russia. In 2020, Russia had added articles 207.1 and 207.2 to the criminal code to impose grave liability on knowingly spreading publicly significant fake news about the Coronavirus. In 2019, Russia had introduced a law criminalising distribution of “fake news” that “disrespects” the government and its institutions.