WASHINGTON (AFP) – Russia on Friday blocked Facebook, curbed Twitter and moved to impose harsh jail terms over “fake news” about its army as Moscow seeks to squelch dissent about its invasion of Ukraine.
Social media giant Facebook was blocked over accusations of “discrimination” against Russian state-tied news outlets, according to media regulator Roskomnadzor, adding Twitter access was also “restricted”.
“Soon millions of ordinary Russians will find themselves cut off from reliable information… and silenced from speaking,” said President of Global Affairs at Facebook’s parent Meta Nick Clegg.
Twitter, which reported last week that its service was restricted for some in Russia, told AFP the platform had not seen anything pointing to a blockage.
The news came as Russian President Vladimir Putin signed into law a bill introducing jail terms of up to 15 years for publishing “fake news” about the Russian army.
Russia’s Lower House said in a statement that if fake news stories “led to serious consequences, (the legislation) threatens imprisonment of up to 15 years”.
Amendments were also passed to fine or jail people calling for sanctions against Russia.
The BBC, which has a large bureau in Moscow and runs a Russian-language news website, reacted by announcing a halt of its operations in Russia.
“This legislation appears to criminalise the process of independent journalism,” BBC Director-General Tim Davie said in a statement.
Bloomberg News also said it was suspending the work of its journalists in Russia. And CNN said it would stop broadcasting in Russia.
Two Russian outlets, Nobel Prize-winning newspaper Novaya Gazeta and business news website The Bell, said on Friday they will stop reporting on Russia’s 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 over the Internet.
The independent news website Meduza, German broadcaster Deutsche Welle, and the Russian-language website of the United States- (US) funded Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty, Svoboda, were “limited”, said Roskomnadzor, following a request from prosecutors.
Head of the Kremlin’s human rights council Valery Fadeyev accused Western media of being behind “a huge flow of false information that comes from Ukraine” and said the council had set up a project to stop it.
Russia’s invasion has already claimed hundreds of lives, displaced more than a million people and spurred allegations of war crimes.
The White House said the US is “deeply concerned” about the Facebook block and more broadly about attacks against freedom of speech in Russia.
“This is a pattern, this is not necessarily a new approach that they have taken,” said White House press secretary Jen Psaki. “Certainly we are deeply concerned about this and concerned about the threat to freedom of speech in the country.”