Russia has reasserted state control over the country's major media companies
STEVE INSKEEP, HOST:
Russia's President Vladimir Putin has gradually reasserted state control over his country's major media companies. And now he has signed into law a measure criminalizing reporting that contradicts the government's version of events. NPR's Charles Maynes joins us from Moscow. Hey there, Charles.
CHARLES MAYNES, BYLINE: Hi there.
INSKEEP: I guess we should mention this happened pretty quickly. On Friday, the Russian parliament, without any debate, passed this new law. And Putin signed it. What are the details?
MAYNES: Yeah. According to the language of the new law, it's now a crime to spread false information or fake news about Russia's armed forces or, I should add, to take any public actions that denigrate Russian soldiers in any way. Another part of the law punishes statements perceived to promote restrictions that harm the country - in other words, sanctions. And for that, there are serious penalties - not only monetary fines but in the most extreme cases, imprisonment, up to 15 years in jail. And, you know, as you noted, the bill was rushed through the parliament here last week, signed into law by Putin on Sunday - on Saturday. Excuse me. And it's now on the books and a factor in daily life.
INSKEEP: What does the government hope to accomplish here?
MAYNES: Well, you know, the Kremlin spokesman, Dmitry Peskov, said this was a response to a campaign of information terrorism by the West - those are his words - amid the current fighting in Ukraine. Let's just acknowledge that there have long been complaints by the Kremlin that Russia is unfairly represented in Western media. You know, they argue that bias has come to a head amid the events in Ukraine. And, you know, in a note explaining the new law, Duma members say the media creates a global negative image of Russia as a bloody aggressor in an effort to whip up panic in society. So this law is clearly Russia pushing back, how effectively remains to be seen.
INSKEEP: Well, how is it affecting Russian media?
MAYNES: Well, again, I think more context here is important. There's long been pressure against independent media in Russia. That's not new. But it has intensified immensely over this past week. Nearly all remaining independent Russian media outlets were either blocked or shut down or chose to suspend operations after the government accused them of intentionally spreading disinformation about what the Kremlin calls its special military operation in Ukraine. And these media outlets essentially were calling the operation a war or an invasion, which the new law now makes illegal. And even independent voices still around, such as the Novaya Gazeta newspaper, whose editor, you might remember, received the Nobel Peace Prize just last year...
MAYNES: ...You know, they've been deleting archives of articles that might violate the law to protect their journalists. And meanwhile, the government says state media, which relies on government sources, is the way to get the true version of events on the ground.
INSKEEP: Is this law also applying to social media?
MAYNES: You know, it does. And it may, in fact, be the primary target, you know, viral information over the internet. The new law dovetails with the government's blockage of social media platforms. Last week, American tech in particular were targeted. So Facebook and Twitter are both now don't work unless you use a VPN, a virtual private network. And in fact, the only two cases brought so far under the new law involve two Russian individuals who posted about protests on their social media accounts. They were both fined.
INSKEEP: OK. So we've talked about domestic media. We've talked about social media. Does this law apply to international correspondents as well in Moscow?
MAYNES: Well, there don't seem to be explicit exceptions, so the assumption has to be yes. As a result, some Western news bureaus have suspended their work. Some journalists have left the country. That said, even as the government levied fines on those two people I mentioned who posted about protests, official government statements acknowledged protests have taken place, you know? The Russian interior ministry said more than 5,000 people in Moscow and Petersburg and other cities held unsanctioned protests on Sunday, with more than 3,500 arrests. And this appears to be the first official acknowledgment of widespread protests. And that just adds to the confusion over how this law is going to be enforced.
INSKEEP: Charles, thanks so much.
MAYNES: Thank you.
INSKEEP: That's NPR's Charles Maynes reporting from Moscow. And if you're wondering what this means for NPR's coverage, NPR's senior vice president of news, Nancy Barnes, tells us NPR continues to assess what the new law means for this organization's operations in the Russian Federation.
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