CBC and BBC suspend reporting from inside Russia in face of 'fake' news law, blocking of Western websites

The CBC and the BBC have said they will temporarily suspend all their reporting from the ground in Russia after Russian President Vladimir Putin signed a bill introducing a prison sentence of up to 15 years for spreading information that goes against the Russian government's position on the war in Ukraine.

Facebook and many Western news sites, including BBC, Voice of America and Deutsche Welle, are blocked

The Moscow newsroom of Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty, shown in April 2021, whose website was among those blocked by Russia's communications watchdog. Others included BBC, Voice of America and Deutsche Welles. (Evgenia Novozhenina/Reuters)

The CBC has joined the BBC in saying it will temporarily suspend all its reporting from the ground in Russia after Russian President Vladimir Putin signed a bill introducing a prison sentence of up to 15 years for spreading information that goes against the Russian government's position on the war in Ukraine.

In an online statement, CBC/Radio-Canada said it is "very concerned about new legislation passed in Russia, which appears to criminalize independent reporting on the current situation in Ukraine and Russia."

The legislation, which was quickly rubber-stamped by both houses of the Kremlin-controlled parliament earlier Friday, criminalizes the intentional spreading of what Russia deems to be "fake" reports about the war.

The broadcaster said Friday it has temporarily suspended its reporting from the ground in Russia while it seeks "clarity on this legislation."

"We join other media in standing up for a free press and unimpeded access to accurate, independent journalism in Ukraine and Russia. Our journalists have been doing vital work to bring all elements of this story to Canadians and people around the world."

The BBC's Russian news service will continue to operate from outside the country while the broadcaster assesses the implications of the law.

"The safety of our staff is paramount, and we are not prepared to expose them to the risk of criminal prosecution simply for doing their jobs," the BBC director-general Tim Davie said in a tweet.

"We remain committed to making accurate, independent information available to audiences around the world, including the millions of Russians who use our news services. Our journalists in Ukraine and around the world will continue to report on the invasion of Ukraine."

Russia cut access to the websites of several foreign news organizations on Friday, including the BBC and Deutsche Welle, for spreading what it alleged was false information about its war in Ukraine.

Russia has repeatedly complained that Western media organizations offer a partial — and often anti-Russian — view of the world while failing to hold their own leaders to account for corruption and devastating foreign wars such as Iraq.

Russia's communications watchdog said on Friday it had blocked the websites of the BBC, Voice of America, Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty, Deutsche Welle and other media outlets.

"Access has been restricted to a host of information resources owned by foreigners," the watchdog, known as Roskomnadzor, said in a statement.

It said the media organizations had spread falsehoods about "the essence of the special military operation in Ukraine, its form, the methods of combat operations, the Russian armed forces' losses and civilian victims."

Facebook now blocked

Later Friday, Russia also blocked Meta Platforms Inc's Facebook, in response to what it said were restrictions on access to Russian media on the platform.

Roskomnadzor said there had been 26 cases of discrimination against Russian media by Facebook since October 2020, with access restricted to state-backed channels like RT and the RIA news agency.

Meta's head of global affairs Nick Clegg said the company would continue to do everything it could to restore its services.

"Soon millions of ordinary Russian will find themselves cut off from reliable information, deprived of their everyday ways of connecting with family and friends and silenced from speaking out," he said, in a statement posted on Twitter.

Meta this week said it had restricted access to RT and Sputnik across the European Union and was globally demoting content from Russian state-controlled outlets' Facebook pages and Instagram accounts, as well as posts containing links to those outlets on Facebook.

The European Union this week banned Russian state-controlled media outlets RT and Sputnik.

Alphabet Inc.'s Google, YouTube and TikTok are also blocking access to RT and Sputnik in the EU. Twitter has said it would comply with the EU ban.

Independent Russian media under censorship

Russia's Novaya Gazeta newspaper, whose editor Dmitry Muratov was a co-winner of last year's Nobel Peace Prize, said on Friday it would remove material on Russia's military actions in Ukraine from its website because of censorship.

The newspaper said it would continue to report on the consequences that Russia is facing, including a deepening economic crisis and the persecution of dissidents.

Novaya Gazeta editor Dmitry Muratov talks to media in Moscow on Oct. 8, 2021. Muratov dedicated his Nobel prize last year to six of the newspaper's journalists who had been murdered for their work. (Alexander Zemlianichenko/The Associated Press)

"Military censorship in Russia has quickly moved into a new phase: from the threat of blocking and closing publications (almost fully implemented) it has moved to the threat of criminal prosecution of both journalists and citizens who spread information about military hostilities that is different from the press releases of the Ministry of Defence," the paper said in a message to readers.

"There is no doubt that this threat will be realized."

The newspaper said it could not risk the freedom of its staff but also could not ignore its readers' desire for it to continue working, even under military censorship.

It said it was therefore removing materials "on this topic" from its website and social networks.

Novaya Gazeta's announcement followed the closure this week of radio station Ekho Moskvy (Echo of Moscow) and TV Rain, two of the few remaining liberal voices in the Russian media.

Editor in chief Aleksei Venediktov at the offices of Echo of Moscow, one of the best-known independent radio stations of the post-Soviet era. It announced Thursday it would shut down after authorities demanded it restrict access because of its coverage of the invasion of Ukraine. (AFP/Getty Images)

Refusing to give up its editorial independence, Ekho Moskvy's board of directors voted to close the station after the prosecutor general's office demanded restrictions on access to it because of what it called false reporting on Russia's "special military operation" in Ukraine.

TV Rain, the youthful independent television station that calls itself "the optimistic channel," said it would suspend operations indefinitely.

Return of shortwave

British Defence Secretary Ben Wallace called Russia's moves against media "an outrageous step against our freedoms."

"I think it's the wrong thing to do. It won't save President Putin from the truth," Wallace told journalists after a meeting in Copenhagen of defence ministers from Britain, Denmark and Sweden.

The BBC said on Wednesday it would start broadcasting four hours of news a day in English on shortwave radio in Ukraine and parts of Russia, reviving an antiquated technology used in the Cold War to circumvent state censorship.

The Russian language websites of the BBC and Voice of America could not be opened without using a Virtual Private Network on Friday, a Reuters reporter said. Voice of America's English language site was accessible, but BBC's was not.

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Western leaders have for years raised concerns about the dominance of state media in Russia and say the freedoms won when the Soviet Union collapsed in 1991 have been rolled back by President Vladimir Putin.

According to an official notice received on March 3, the Russian communications watchdog said Radio Liberty's Russian service had spread "obviously fake socially significant information about the alleged Russian attack on Ukrainian territory."

Describing the situation in Ukraine has become a sensitive issue in Moscow.

Putin, who has described the West as an "empire of lies," said the "special military operation" was essential to ensure Russian security after the United States enlarged the NATO military alliance to Russia's borders and supported pro-Western leaders in Kyiv.

Russian officials do not use the word "invasion," and say Western media have failed to report on what they cast as the "genocide" of Russian-speaking people in Ukraine.

With files from CBC News