Russia wages war against independent media

Dozhd TV (TV Rain), Russia's only independent TV station was one of two outlets shut down by Russian authorities on Tuesday over their coverage of the war in Ukraine. [EPA / SERGEI CHIRIKOV]

As the war in Ukraine continues, Russia has stepped up efforts to restrict the availability of information, targeting independent reporting on both sides of the border. 

Russian authorities shut down on Tuesday (1 March) two critical broadcasters — radio station Ekho Moskvy (Echo of Moscow) and the country’s only independent TV station, Dozhd TV (TV Rain) – over their coverage of the war in Ukraine.

The move, which took both outlets off the air and blocked access to their websites, comes amid a broader tightening of restrictions on independent media in Russia that has accelerated since the country invaded Ukraine last week. 

On 26 February, Roskomnadzor, the Russian media regulator, contacted at least 10 news outlets about “the need to restrict access to false information” in their reporting. 

In a statement, the watchdog described the organisations as publishing what it described as “untrue information” about the Russian army’s shelling of Ukrainian cities and the deaths of Ukrainian civilians and announced the launch of an investigation into “the dissemination of unreliable publicly significant information.”

The targeted organisations — which included Ekho Moskvy and Dozhd TV —  were warned that unless they removed this material, as well as any content describing the operation as an “attack, invasion, or a declaration of war”, they could face fines or the blocking of their content. 

Also amongst the recipients of the caution was Novaya Gazeta, a leading independent newspaper, whose editor, Dimitry Muratov, received the Nobel Peace Prize last year for his work in defending press freedom. 

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On 24 February, the day Russia entered Ukraine, Roskomnadzor instructed journalists that in covering the situation, they were obliged to only use information and data received from official Russian sources. 

Moves are also reportedly underway to criminalise the dissemination of “unofficial” information about the war in Ukraine.

According to the independent outlet the Moscow Times, under a bill being prepared in the State Duma, those who “distort the purpose, role and tasks” of the Russian army or publish “fake” information about Russian military losses could face up to 15 years in prison. 

A number of journalists have also been detained and charged at anti-war protests held around the country in recent days.  

Social media sites have also faced increased restrictions. Access to Facebook in Russia was slowed last Friday in retaliation against what Roskomnadzor said was the platform’s restriction of the pages of certain Russian state media. Access to Twitter has been similarly heavily curtailed. 

“Russian authorities’ restricting of social media platforms and independent media outlets is clear censorship and undermines the free flow of information,” said Carlos Martinez de la Serna, programme director at the Committee to Protect Journalists.

He called on them to “stop employing draconian tactics against independent media as a way to control the narrative around the country’s invasion of Ukraine”. 

“It is essential that the few remaining independent voices in Russia do not become a casualty in this conflict.” 

The result of this heightened assault on the critical press is a significantly narrowed window of information in Russia on what is unfolding in Ukraine, with state-backed media deploying official narratives and providing a highly selective version of events.

While big tech has begun to act to combat disinformation and target Russian state media, there has been reluctance from platforms to cut their services entirely in the country over concerns that this could further diminish the information space. 

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In response to requests earlier this week from the Ukrainian government to ban all access to Facebook and Instagram in Russia, Meta’s head of global affairs, Nick Clegg, said the platforms were being used “to protest and organise against the war and as a source of independent information”.

Media within Russia have not been alone in facing attacks. On Tuesday, Russian strikes on Kyiv brought down the city’s TV tower, killing five people and temporarily taking some channels off air.

There has been significant international attention paid to the presence of disinformation linked to the conflict, both within Ukraine and across Europe. 

New economic sanctions announced by the EU on Wednesday morning have banned RT and Sputnik from broadcasting in the bloc, and platforms including Google, TikTok, Meta and Microsoft have all taken action to restrict the activities of both outlets on their platforms in Europe. 

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[Edited by Luca BertuzziZoran Radosavljevic]

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