Russia on Friday blocked Facebook, restricted access to Twitter, and moved to impose harsh jail terms for publishing “fake news” about the army as part of efforts to muffle dissent over Moscow’s invasion of Ukraine.
Social media staple Facebook was blocked over several instances of “discrimination” of Russian state media, according to media regulator Roskomnadzor.
“Soon millions of ordinary Russians will find themselves cut off from reliable information… and silenced from speaking,” said Nick Clegg, president of global affairs at Facebook’s parent Meta.
After blocking Facebook, Roskomnadzor quickly followed up by declaring a block on Twitter.
The agency said it cut access to Twitter in line with the Russian Prosecutor General’s office decision. The watchdog has previously accused Twitter of failing to delete the content banned by the Russian authorities and slowed down access to it.
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.
“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 jobs.”
Two Russian outlets, Nobel Prize-winning newspaper Novaya Gazeta and business news website The Bell, said 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 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 US-funded Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty, Svoboda, were “limited,” said Roskomnadzor, 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 that comes from Ukraine” and said the council had set up a project to stop it.
In another attack on critical voices, Russian police on Friday were carrying out searches at the office of the country’s most prominent rights group, Memorial, which was ordered to close late last year, sparking an international outcry.
Russia’s invasion has already claimed hundreds of lives, displaced more than a million people, and spurred allegations of war crimes.
Western-led sanctions leveled against Russia in retaliation have sent the ruble into freefall, forcing the central bank to impose a 30-percent tax on sales of hard currency after a run on lenders.
Moscow has few economic tools with which to respond, but the Duma, or lower house, on Friday adopted a bill that would freeze any assets inside Russia of foreigners “violating rights of Russians.”
Russian media have been instructed to publish only information provided by official sources, which describe the invasion as a military operation.
Also Friday, G7 foreign ministers warned Russia would face further “severe sanctions” for its invasion of Ukraine, and called on Moscow to stop its attacks near nuclear power plants.
“We will continue to impose further severe sanctions in response to Russian aggression, enabled by the Lukashenko regime in Belarus,” the ministers from the G7 club of wealthy nations said in a statement.
The foreign ministers from Canada, France, Germany, Italy, Japan, Britain, and the United States condemned the overnight attack on Ukraine’s Zaporizhzhia atomic power plant, Europe’s largest.
“We urge Russia to stop its attacks, especially in the direct vicinity of Ukraine’s nuclear power plants,” they said.
“Any armed attack on and threat against nuclear facilities devoted to peaceful purposes constitutes a violation of the principles of international law.”
The ministers said they support an offer by Rafael Grossi, director-general of the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA), to travel to Ukraine to negotiate with Ukraine and Russia on ensuring the safety of nuclear sites.
In view of the rapidly worsening humanitarian situation, the G7 ministers also welcomed the announcement of an arrangement between Kyiv and Moscow to create evacuation corridors for Ukrainian citizens “as an important step.”
These humanitarian corridors need to be implemented “reliably and swiftly,” the seven nations said.
“We re-emphasize that indiscriminate attacks are prohibited by international humanitarian law.
“We will hold accountable those responsible for war crimes, including indiscriminate use of weapons against civilians,” the statement said.
Allies will also counter “Russia’s disinformation campaign.”
“Their steady stream of fabricated claims is putting additional lives at risk,” the G7 ministers added.
White House press secretary Jen Psaki reiterated the Biden administration remains resistant for now on banning Russian oil imports, raising concerns that such a ban could have a negative impact on the US and European economies. She added, however, that the administration was “looking at options we could take right now to cut US consumption of Russian energy.”
Separately, a Western official said a huge Russian military convoy advancing on Kyiv has made little progress for several days.
The official said the convoy, which has been estimated at up to 40 miles (64 kilometers) long, had become a huge traffic jam that included damaged or destroyed vehicles.
The official, who spoke on condition of anonymity to discuss intelligence, said the convoy had been attacked from the air by the Ukrainians, but that Ukraine’s ability to do so was limited.
The official assessed that Ukrainian forces remain in control of much of the country’s territory, but that Russia holds the cities of Kherson, Melitopol, and Berdiansk in the south.
Multiple Western officials have said Russia’s invasion of Ukraine has advanced more slowly than planned, with Russian forces meeting stiff Ukrainian resistance and encountering myriad logistical problems.
In a phone call Friday with German Chancellor Olaf Scholz, Putin “confirmed that Russia is open to dialogue with the Ukrainian side, as well as with everyone who wants peace in Ukraine. But under the condition that all Russian demands are met,” according to the Kremlin.
These include the neutral and non-nuclear status of Ukraine, its “denazification,” recognition of Crimea as part of Russia, and the “sovereignty” of separatist territories in eastern Ukraine.
“Hope was expressed that during the planned third round of talks, the representatives of Kyiv will take a reasonable and constructive position,” the Kremlin added.
The next meeting of delegations from Russia and Ukraine is expected during the weekend, according to one of Kyiv’s negotiators.
Putin also denied that Russian troops were bombing Ukrainian cities, dismissing such information as fake, the Kremlin said.
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