Russia has intensified censorship and repression against social networking sites and their users by blocking access to Facebook, Twitter, and Instagram, as well as passing a law that criminalizes the dissemination of “fake news” about the Russian Armed Forces and “calls to adopt sanctions against the country.”
On March 4, 2022, the Federal Service for Supervision of Communications, Information Technology, and Mass Media (Roskomnadzor, in Russian) said it was taking this step after Facebook restricted “the official accounts of the Zvezda TV channel; the RIA Novosti, Sputnik, and Russia Today news agencies; and the Lenta.ru and Gazeta.ru news sites.”
“Soon, millions of ordinary Russians will find themselves cut off from reliable information, deprived of their everyday ways of connecting with family and friends, and silenced from speaking out,” Nick Clegg, president of Global Affairs at Meta, the parent organization of Facebook, Instagram, and WhatsApp, said via Twitter. “We will continue to do everything we can to restore our services, so they remain available to people to safely express themselves and organize for action.”
Eight days after Russia launched its invasion of Ukraine, Twitter added warning labels to accounts sharing links from Russian state-affiliated news sites, in an attempt to add useful context to interactions.
“As people look for credible information on Twitter regarding the Russian invasion of Ukraine, we understand and take our role seriously,” Yoel Roth, global head of Site Integrity at Twitter, said on February 28. “Our product should make it easy to understand who’s behind the content you see, and what their motivations and intentions are.”
On March 11, Roskomnadzor also announced that it would restrict access to Instagram, arguing that “the Instagram social network distributes informational materials containing calls to commit violent acts against citizens of the Russian Federation, including military personnel.”
These measures came hours after Russian President Vladimir Putin signed reforms to the Criminal Code imposing a jail term of up to 15 years and fines to those who “discredit or spread deliberately false information about the Armed Forces of the Russian Federation.”
Additionally, on March 4, Russian officials endorsed amendments to the Code of Administrative Offenses to impose fines on those who “call for the imposition of sanctions against Russia,” in accordance with the Russian Federal Assembly.
Reaction from the free press
In view of these decisions to silence those who are reporting on the war in Ukraine, news networks moved to suspend their operations from Russia and withdraw their personnel, as they assessed the situation. The BBC was the first to do so on March 4.
“The legislation appears to criminalize the process of independent journalism. It leaves us no other option than to temporarily suspend the work of all BBC News journalists and their support staff within the Russian Federation while we assess the full implications,” BBC Director General Tim Davie said.
That same day, CBC/Radio-Canada expressed its concern. “[The law] appears to criminalize independent reporting on the current situation in Ukraine and Russia […]. Our journalists have been doing vital work to bring all elements of this story to Canadians and people around the world. We are proud of their professionalism and determination and we will continue to support their work.”
On March 5, the Spanish news agency EFE, which opened its foreign desk in Moscow in 1970, also said it would suspend reporting from its journalists. Gabriela Cañas, EFE president, deeply regretted “this serious attack on freedom of expression, an obvious attempt by the Kremlin to hide the truth from public opinion.”
“We have with great regret decided to temporarily suspend our news gathering inside Russia,” Bloomberg Editor-in-Chief John Micklethwait said. “The change to the criminal code, which seems designed to turn any independent reporter into a criminal purely by association, makes it impossible to continue any semblance of normal journalism inside the country.”