Russia on Friday blocked Facebook and decided to impose harsh prison terms for posting “fake news” about the military as part of efforts to stifle dissent over Moscow’s invasion of Ukraine.
The popular social network Facebook has been blocked following several cases of “discrimination” by Russian state media, media regulator Roskomnadzor has said.
Earlier in the day, Russian lawmakers backed legislation that would impose stiff prison terms and fines for publishing “fake news”.
Russia’s lower house said in a statement that if false news “results in serious consequences, (the legislation) threatens imprisonment of up to 15 years.”
Amendments were also passed to fine or imprison people calling for sanctions against Russia.
The BBC, which has a large office in Moscow and runs a news site in Russian, reacted by announcing the cessation of its operations in Russia.
“This legislation appears to criminalize the process of independent journalism,” BBC director-general Tim Davie said in a statement.
He warned that journalists could face “the risk of criminal prosecution simply for doing their job”.
Two Russian media outlets, Nobel Prize-winning newspaper Novaya Gazeta and business news site The Bell, said on Friday they would stop reporting on the Russian invasion of Ukraine to protect their journalists.
The past year has seen an unprecedented crackdown on independent and critical voices in Russia that has intensified since the invasion.
Russia’s media watchdog said on Friday it had restricted access to the BBC and other independent media websites, further tightening controls on the internet.
Foreign media restricted
Independent news site Meduza, German broadcaster Deutsche Welle and US-funded Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty’s Russian-language site Svoboda were “restricted”, Roskomnadzor said, following a request from prosecutors.
Valery Fadeyev, the head of the Kremlin’s human rights council, accused Western media of being behind “a huge flow of false information from Ukraine” and said the council had set up a project to stop it.
In another attack on critical voices, Russian police were Friday raiding the office of the country’s largest rights group, Memorial, which was ordered to close late last year, prompting an international outcry.
The Russian invasion has already claimed hundreds of lives, displaced more than a million people and sparked allegations of war crimes.
Sanctions imposed by the West on Russia in retaliation sent the ruble into a tailspin, forcing the central bank to impose a 30% tax on hard currency sales after a run on lenders.
State Media Stories
Moscow has few economic tools to respond, but the Duma, or lower house, passed a bill on Friday that would freeze all assets in Russia of foreigners “violating the rights of Russians”.
Russian media have been instructed to only publish information provided by official sources, which portrays the invasion as a military operation.
For now, it seems the invasion has marked the beginning of the end for what remains of Russia’s independent media.
Ekho Mosvky – a liberal radio station majority-owned by Russian energy giant Gazprom – announced on Thursday that it would close after being taken off the air for its coverage of the war in Ukraine.
Authorities on Tuesday blocked Ekho Moskvy’s website and shut down the station as punishment for spreading “deliberately false information” about the conflict.
Its editor-in-chief Alexei Venediktov said on Telegram on Friday that the station would take down its website and social media accounts.
Another independent outlet, Znak, said on Friday it was stopping work “due to the large number of restrictions that have recently emerged for media work in Russia.”
The BBC said this week that its Russian-language news site’s audience had “more than tripled…with a record reach of 10.7 million people last week”.
A BBC spokesman said the company would “continue its efforts to make BBC News available in Russia and the rest of the world” despite the restrictions.