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 Anadolu Agency via Getty Images

10th March 2022, 14:22:14 UTC

  • Independent media blocked, more than 150 journalists have fled the country 
  • Facebook and Twitter banned 
  • New legislation punishes independent reporting on the war with up to 15 years behind bars; the term “war” and calls for “peace” are effectively banned  
  • More than 13,800 arbitrarily arrested at anti-war rallies since 24 February 

The Russian authorities have unleashed an unprecedented, nationwide crackdown on independent journalism, anti-war protests and dissenting voices following Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, Amnesty International said today.

By blocking the most popular critical media outlets, closing independent radio stations and forcing dozens of journalists to halt their work or leave the country, the authorities have almost completely deprived people in Russia of access to objective, unbiased and trustworthy information. Roskomnadzor, Russia’s media regulator, has also blocked access to Facebook and Twitter. 

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“For two decades, the Russian authorities have waged a covert war against dissenting voices by arresting journalists, cracking down on independent newsrooms and forcing media owners to impose self-censorship. Yet, after Russian tanks entered Ukraine, the authorities switched to a scorched-earth strategy that has turned Russia’s media landscape into a wasteland,” said Marie Struthers, Amnesty International’s Director for Eastern Europe and Central Asia. 

Critical reporting and social media silenced 

Since the start of the invasion, Roskomnadzor began to establish war-like censorship to silence dissent. On 24 February, the regulator ordered all media outlets to only use official, state-sanctioned sources of information or else face severe punishments for spreading “fake news”. The words ‘war’, ‘invasion’ and ‘attack’ were all banned from use when describing Russia’s military actions in Ukraine.   

On 28 February, Roskomnadzor blocked Nastoyashchee Vremya (Current Times), a subsidiary of Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty, for spreading “unreliable” information about the invasion. On 1 March, almost all Ukrainian news outlets were inaccessible to internet users in Russia. 

Over the days that followed, the Kremlin ruthlessly censored a swathe of independent media, including broadcaster TV Rain, the Echo of Moscow radio station, Latvia-based Meduza, critical Russian news outlets Mediazona, Republic and Sobesednik, grassroots activism portal Activatica and the Russian-language services of the BBC, Voice of America and Deutsche Welle.  

The blocking of news sites and the threat of criminal prosecutions has also led to an exodus of journalists from Russia. According to Agentstvo, an investigative journalism site now inaccessible in Russia, at least 150 journalists have fled the country since the beginning of the war.  

TV Rain chose to suspend broadcasting amidst fears of reprisals. Znak.com, a significant regional news channel, halted its operations citing censorship fears. The Echo of Moscow radio station was taken off the air; shortly after, its state-aligned owners decided to liquidate the company. Even Novaya Gazeta, a beacon of independent journalism led by Nobel Peace Prize laureate Dmitry Muratov, announced on 4 March that it would remove articles on Russia’s invasion of Ukraine.  

From 1 March, Roskomnadzor began to slow traffic on Twitter and Facebook to a crawl, before accusing the two companies of disseminating “inaccurate” information about the conflict in Ukraine. On 4 March, both social media platforms were blocked.  

“The free press in Russia has not died despite the authorities’ relentless efforts. The brave journalists continue their crucial work, not in newsrooms but as exiled reporters scattered around the world. One may not see their reports on TV or hear them on the radio, yet their truth is livestreamed on YouTube. Their words do not grace the pages of newspapers but are spread to the world through Telegram-channels. Vital updates from all these correspondents must be shared and valued,” said Marie Struthers.  

Weaponizing of “foreign agents” and “undesirable organisations” laws 

The Russian authorities also used notorious repressive legislation to crackdown on media and dissenting voices. On 5 March, two investigative reporting outlets, Vazhnye Istorii (Important Stories) and the Organized Crime and Corruption Reporting Project (OCCRP), were designated as “undesirable organisations”, which criminalised their operations and barred them from working in Russia. 

On 9 March, a new bill was introduced in the State Duma creating a “unified register” of all current and former employees or members of NGOs, public associations and media entities labelled as “foreign agents” and persons labelled as such individually. 

Crackdown on anti-war protests 

Despite the introduction of draconian restrictions and a ferocious police response to peaceful protests, Russia’s anti-war movement continues to fill the streets with rallies even though the authorities immediately and brutally disperse them.  

According to OVD-Info, a police watchdog NGO, around 13,800 peaceful protesters have been arbitrarily detained after anti-war rallies across Russia since 24 February. This figure includes more than 5,000 peaceful protesters who were detained across 70 cities on 6 March alone.  

People deprived of their liberty in Russia are routinely subjected to beatings, humiliation and other forms of ill-treatment. Many people have also said they were denied access to lawyers and deprived of food, water or bedding.

In one particular case, at Brateyevo police station in Moscow on 6 March, a protester recorded a policeman telling her: “It’s over. Putin is on our side. You are the enemies of Russia. You are the enemies of the people.” He then said “we’re gonna kill you all here and that’s it. We’ll get another reward for it” as they dragged her by her hair and smashed her in the face with a plastic water bottle.

“The courageous people in Russia who oppose the war face serious personal risk. When they take to the streets, which is already a crime in the eyes of the authorities, and demand an end to the war, their message represents such a glaring contrast with state propaganda that it places them firmly in the crosshairs of the security forces. Yet these people should be celebrated for daring to raise their voices against the injustice of the invasion,” said Marie Struthers.

Criminalisation of “fake news” 

On 4 March, Russia’s parliament introduced legislation that further criminalises sharing “false information” about the activities of the Russian Armed Forces or “discredits” Russian troops. Anyone accused of committing these “crimes” could face extortionate fines or a prison sentence of up to 15 years. Over the following three days, more than 140 people were detained under the new law effectively banning the word “war” and calls for “peace”. 

“In dark times like these, only solidarity and goodwill can challenge the onslaught of state violence and rampant lawlessness. We call on the Russian authorities to end their relentless assault against civil society organisations and journalists. And we ask the international community to provide all possible support to Russian reporters, human rights defenders and activists who continue to deliver the truth and stand up against injustice despite suffering terribly for their cause,” said Marie Struthers. 

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