Russia Puts Up an Information Iron Curtain

A Russian journalist posting on Facebook last fall. Photo: Natalia Kolesnikova/AFP via Getty Images

As Russia pivots to a war footing at home, it’s going to become more difficult for its citizens to find out what is actually going on in the war across the border in Ukraine. On Friday, Russian lawmakers voted to criminalize the distribution of “fake” information. Journalists who publish information that opposes official government statements regarding the “special military action” in Ukraine or the international sanctions could face up to 15 years in prison.

“American social networks — Instagram, Facebook, Twitter, YouTube —controlled by Washington, launched an information war against Russia,” Duma chairman Vyacheslav Volodin wrote before the bill’s passage. “They violate their own rules, norms of international law, restrict freedom of speech [and] spread false information. We cannot help but react to what is happening.”

The reaction is sweeping. Roskomnadzor, the nation’s censorship agency, has blocked access to Twitter and Facebook, making Russia one of a small number of authoritarian governments to block access to the latter platform. Major international media outlets, like BBC Russia and Radio Liberty, have had their access curtailed, while the BBC has pulled its journalists from the country to protect them from potential arrest. CNN announced Friday that it would also “stop broadcasting in Russia while we continue to evaluate the situation and our next steps moving forward.” Independent Russian news outlets, like TV Rain and the Echo of Moscow radio station, which was founded in 1990, were taken off the air this week in response to their coverage of the war in Ukraine. (TV Rain staff staged a dramatic televised walkout on Thursday after its final broadcast.)

Meta claims the Facebook blackout was preceded by restrictions owing to the company’s policy of fact-checking Russia’s state-sponsored media channels on the social network. “We will continue to do everything we can to restore our services so they remain available to people to safely and securely express themselves and organize for action,” Meta president of global affairs Nick Clegg wrote in response to the ban.

While these two huge channels of social media have gone dark, Russians can still connect with one another on Meta apps like Instagram — which is more commonly used in the country — and WhatsApp. Both have been used, along with the popular encrypted-messaging service Telegram, to share information about the invasion and the protests against it, which also face an ongoing crackdown. OVD-Info, an organization fighting political persecution in Russia, stated on Wednesday that 8,000 people had been arrested during eight days of demonstrations against the war in Ukraine.

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Russia Puts Up an Information Iron Curtain