Russian law on ‘fake news’ prompts media to halt reporting as websites blocked

File photo. Russian journalist Alexei Venediktov, editor-in-chief of the Echo of Moscow (Ekho Moskvy) radio station, speaks on the phone in the office of the radio station in Moscow, Russia, 23 October 2017, reissued 3 March 2022). The Ekho Moskvy, one of Russia's leading media outlets, was taken off the air on 01 March by the Roskomnadzor, Russia's media-monitoring agency, the radio station announced on social media, amid a Russian crackdown on independent media covering Russia's invasion of Ukraine. [EPA-EFE/SERGEI CHIRIKOV]

Russia blocked Facebook and some other websites and passed a law that gave Moscow much stronger powers to crack down on independent journalism, prompting the BBC, Bloomberg and other foreign media to suspend reporting in the country.

War raged in Ukraine for a 10th day on Saturday as Russian troops besieged and bombarded cities in the biggest attack on a European state since World War Two.

The fighting has created over 1 million refugees, a barrage of sanctions that are increasingly isolating Moscow and fears in the West of a wider global conflict that has been unthought-of for decades.

Moscow says its invasion is a “special operation” to capture individuals it regards as dangerous nationalists, and has denied targeting civilians.

Ukraine’s state service of special communications and protection of information says Russian forces have focussed efforts on encircling Kyiv and Kharkiv, the second-biggest city, while aiming to establish a land bridge to Crimea.

Kyiv, in the path of a Russian armoured column that has been stalled outside the Ukrainian capital for days, came under renewed assault, with explosions audible from the city centre.

Ukrainian media outlet Suspilne cited authorities in Sumy, about 300 km east of Kyiv, as saying that there is a risk of fighting in the city’s streets, urging residents to stay in shelters.

Russian forces also have encircled and shelled the southeastern port city of Mariupol – a key prize. There is no water, heat or electricity and food is running out, according to Mayor Vadym Boychenko.

“We are simply being destroyed,” he said.

President Vladimir Putin’s actions have drawn almost universal condemnation, and many countries have imposed heavy sanctions as the West balances punishment with avoiding a widening of the conflict.

Fighting back in the information war, Russia’s parliament passed a law on Friday imposing a prison term of up to 15 years for spreading intentionally “fake” news about the military.

Russia threatens jail for 'fake' news about Ukraine conflict

Russia’s parliament on Friday (4 March) passed a law imposing a jail term of up to 15 years for spreading intentionally “fake” news about the military, stepping up the information war over the conflict in Ukraine.

“This law will force punishment – and very tough punishment – on those who lied and made statements which discredited our armed forces,” said Vyacheslav Volodin, the chairman of the Duma, Russia’s lower house of parliament.

Russia is blocking Facebook for restricting state-backed channels and the websites of the BBC, Deutsche Welle and the Voice of America.

CNN and CBS News said they would stop broadcasting in Russia, and other outlets removed Russian-based journalists’ bylines as they assessed the situation.

More sanctions on the way?

Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskiy is expected to press Washington for more help in a Zoom call with the full US Senate at 9:30 a.m. ET (1430 GMT) on Saturday (5 March).

The United States is weighing cuts to imports of Russian oil and ways to minimise the impact on global supplies and consumers as lawmakers fast-track a bill that would ban Russian energy imports. Global oil prices surged over 20% this week on fears of supply shortages, posing a risk to global economic growth.

At a meeting on Friday, NATO allies rejected Ukraine’s appeal for no-fly zones, saying they were increasing support but that stepping in directly could make the situation worse.

NATO rules out no-fly zone over Ukraine

NATO foreign ministers on Friday (4 March) said they would not set up a no-fly zone over Ukraine or involve their troops in any intervention there, but promised other aid to Kyiv.

“We have a responsibility … to prevent this war from escalating beyond Ukraine because that would be even more dangerous, more devastating and would cause even more human suffering,” said NATO Secretary-General Jens Stoltenberg.

Zelenskiy slammed the summit as “weak” and “confused.”

“It was clear that not everyone considers the battle for Europe’s freedom to be the number one goal,” he said.

More EU sanctions were coming, potentially including a ban on Russian-flagged ships in European ports and blocking imports of steel, timber, aluminium or coal, said Irish Foreign Minister Simon Coveney.

Russian Defence Minister Sergei Shoigu told UN Secretary-General Antonio Guterres on Friday that talks with Ukraine on peacefully ending the conflict had “not moved from the starting point,” Tass news agency said.

Humanitarian disaster

A humanitarian disaster is unfolding, with more than 1 million people seeking refuge in western Ukraine and in neighbouring countries.

Thousands of people waited for hours on Friday outside the railway station at the western city of Lviv to board trains heading to Poland. Families arrived with few belongings. Some were in wheelchairs, others accompanied by pet dogs and cats, uncertain about their fate.

“All we took with us is the bare necessities,” said Yana Tebyakina. “A change of clothes. That’s it. All the rest we left behind, all our lives stayed back at home.”

A Friday attack on the Zaporizhzhia nuclear power plant, the largest in Europe, about 140 miles (230 km) west of Mariupol, brought the conflict to a perilous moment, but officials later said the facility was safe.

Russian forces seize huge Ukrainian nuclear plant, fire extinguished

A fire broke out in a training building at the largest nuclear power plant in Europe during intense fighting between Russian and Ukrainian forces, Ukraine’s state emergency service said on Friday (4 March).

The plant and adjacent territory were now being guarded by Russian troops, Moscow’s envoy to the United Nations said.

The US ambassador to the UN, Linda Thomas-Greenfield, said the world had narrowly averted a nuclear catastrophe.

The attack reflected a “dangerous new escalation” in Russia’s invasion, she said during an emergency UN Security Council meeting, demanding assurances from Moscow that such an assault would not happen again.

Russian forces have made their biggest advances in the south, where they captured their first sizeable Ukrainian city, Kherson, this week. Bombing has worsened in recent days in the northeast cities of Kharkiv and Chernihiv.

Ukrainian presidential adviser Oleksiy Arestovych said an advance had been halted on the southern port of Mykolayiv. If captured, the city of 500,000 people would be the biggest yet to fall.

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