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Journalists work in the news room of the independent Dozhd (Rain) television channel in Moscow, Russia. © 2021 AP/Denis Kaminev

An update of this report through March 3, 2022 is available here.

(Berlin) – Russian authorities have threatened to fine or block 10 Russian independent media outlets if they do not delete publications about the war in Ukraine, Human Rights Watch said today. The authorities have interfered with access to Facebook and Twitter and have blocked access to another media website.

On February 26, 2022, Roskomnadzor, the state media and communications regulator, accused the 10 outlets of publishing “false information” about the war. The alleged false information includes information that the Russian military is shelling Ukrainian cities and causing civilian casualties and references to the armed conflict as “an attack,” “invasion,” or “declaration of war.” The Russian authorities appear to require outlets to refer to the war only as a “special operation in connection with the situation in Lugansk People’s Republic and Donetsk People’s Republic.”

“For the past decade, Russian authorities have used a web of vague laws and flimsy pretexts to intimidate and harass independent and dissenting voices,” said Hugh Williamson, Europe and Central Asia director at Human Rights Watch. “Now they are bluntly imposing censorship combined with a false narrative that they demand everyone must parrot.”

Roskomnadzor’s warning, published via the social media platform Telegram on February 26, was directed at the following outlets: Echo of Moscow, InoSMI, Media Zona, New Times, Dozhd, Svobodnay Pressa, Krym.Realii, Novaya Gazeta, Journalist, and Lenizdat. The authorities had earlier designated some of them as “foreign agent” media.

Echo of Moscow’s editor-in-chief said that the station took down the publication and posted an explanation of what had been deleted and why. He also said that Echo of Moscow may seek to challenge Roskomnadzor’s order in court.

The Roskomnadzor warning also stated that it had opened an inquiry into alleged “violations” and may fine noncompliant media up to 5 million rubles. Roskomnadzor’s authority to issue such warnings and impose punitive measures for failure to comply derives from a 2012 law that clamped down on online expression and has been further expanded through other laws in subsequent years.

On February 24, Roskomnadzor published a warning to mass media about disseminating “unverified” and “false” information, saying that only information from official sources can be published when reporting on what the government calls a “special operation” in Ukraine. The authorities also said that all “false” information would be instantly blocked and warned about fines for disseminating “fake” news.

Earlier on February 24, Roskomnadzor threatened to block Prospekt Mira (Peace Avenue), an outlet in Krasnoyarsk, Siberia, if it did not delete news about the shelling of Ukrainian cities, which included a compilation of videos from CNN, Russian State News Agency “RIA Novosti,” and from Russian channels on the Telegram messaging app. The agency did not specify what aspect of the content constituted the “false information,” media reports said.

Until February 27, Russia’s Defense Ministry had claimed that there had been no Russian military casualties and that the Russian offensive had caused no civilian casualties, but it has now acknowledged some Russian military casualties. To comply with Roskomnadzor’s instruction to report only information from official Russian sources, media are expected to accept and repeat this position.

After the February 26 Roskomnadzor warning, the Defense Ministry accused Novaya Gazeta of “promoting fake information,” prepared by Ukraine “on templates approved by “US propaganda” and NATO to discredit Russia.

A few hours later, in a media interview, Kirill Martynov, deputy editor of Novaya Gazeta, said that the outlet was sticking by its report that Russian military forces were shelling Ukrainian cities. He said that prior to the Defense Ministry’s accusations, Novaya Gazeta had asked the ministry to provide information on Russian military casualties but had yet to receive a reply. Martynov also said that he was threatened with criminal prosecution for reporting that Russian forces had killed civilians in Ukraine. He added that avoiding criminal prosecution in journalism was only possible if you were prepared “to ignore reality” and “learn to call black as white and white as black.”

On February 27, Roskomnadzor notified Current Time that its website had been blocked, because it contained “false information” about Russian military casualties and prisoners of war. Roskomnadzor said it may consider restoring access if the offending information was taken down. Current Time has said that it would not comply.

Russian authorities have also taken other steps to limit access to online information. On February 25, Roskomnadzor announced that it would partially restrict access to Facebook in Russia, in retaliation for Meta, Facebook’s parent company, blocking four Russian state media accounts. Meta’s vice president, Nick Clegg, tweeted that on February 24, “Russian authorities ordered [them] to stop independent fact-checking and labelling of content posted on Facebook” by those state-owned media. After Meta refused to comply, the Russian government announced that it would restrict access to Meta services.

On February 26, Twitter announced that Russian authorities had restricted access to its services in Russia. Reports by online monitoring groups confirm that some Twitter users in Russia experienced serious interruptions in using the platform.

Both Meta and Twitter announced steps the companies were taking in relation to the Russia’s invasion of Ukraine.

As a party to the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights and the European Convention on Human Rights, Russia has obligations to respect and protect the rights to freedom of opinion and expression, which include the rights “to seek, receive and impart information and ideas through any media and regardless of frontiers.” While necessary and proportionate restrictions on these rights may be imposed for legitimate reasons, including national security, territorial integrity, or public safety, the scope of Russian censorship does not meet the criteria for lawful interference with these rights, Human Rights Watch said.

Freedom of speech and access to information may also be subject to further restrictions in times of emergency including wartime. However Russian authorities are neither using wartime powers nor has Russia stated that it is seeking to derogate from – temporarily and partially suspend – its human rights obligations, due to a state of emergency. The level of control and censorship that Russia’s measures seek to achieve deprives freedom of expression and the right of access to information of meaningful content and cannot be justified under international law even in times of war, Human Rights Watch said.

“States have legitimate interests in preventing the spread of misinformation during wartime, but Russian authorities are going far beyond any legitimate aims,” Williamson said. “Efforts to effectively impose a public information vacuum are wrong and can be dangerous. Media outlets and journalists should be able to do their job responsibly, without fear of punishment and prosecution.”

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