“War” and “invasion” are two words that can land someone in prison for up to 15 years under a new Russian law.
Those words are “fake news” in the eyes of Russian lawmakers and President Vladimir Putin, who last week passed a law criminalizing the intentional spread of information that goes against the government’s narrative about what the country prefers to call a “special military operation” in Ukraine.
As Russia grows increasingly isolated from the Western world as a result of sanctions and bans, the Kremlin has, in some ways, embraced the isolation by pushing out non-Russian speech and press.
The bill was quickly passed through both houses of the Kremlin-controlled parliament and signed by Putin on March 4.
Newsrooms, both Russian and foreign, scrambled to protect their reporters: CNN stopped live broadcasting in Russia, while the BBC suspended its journalists’ work there. But the law doesn’t stop with news outlets: TikTok suspended livestreaming and new content from Russia, saying the new law left the social media giant “no choice.”
Experts told USA TODAY that Russia has been clamping down on free speech and independent press for years – even decades – without such momentous reaction. The country has even passed a number of similar laws in the past.
This time, the implications could be much more dangerous.
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Vyacheslav Volodin, the speaker of the lower house of parliament, said the measure “will force those who lied and made statements discrediting our armed forces to bear very grave punishment.”
The new law doles out criminal penalties, whereas a similar 2019 law threatened mostly administrative penalties in the form of fines, said William Pomeranz, acting director of the Wilson Center’s Kennan Institute, a center for advanced research on Russia and Eurasia.
Under the new legislation, individuals can be punished with up to 15 years of prison for publishing information that runs counter to Russia’s narrative. That person could be a journalist who spoke negatively of Russia in a years-old tweet — the law is retroactive — or a Russian citizen who posts a TikTok about the country’s military invasion in Ukraine.
“The prospect of 15 years in jail is a pretty strong incentive to review your situation,” Pomeranz said.
Non-Russian news outlets and social media sites were among the few remaining sources for Russians to learn non-government information about the war: Ekho Moskvy, the country’s top independent radio station, and Dozhd, an independent TV station, both shut down last week alongside many other Russian independent news outlets.
Molly Schwartz, a journalist who had been working for the Moscow Times through a fellowship, left the country on Feb. 27, just days before Putin signed the new bill into law.
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The American reporter was ordered to leave Russia through her program after working for only two weeks at the paper. But some of her coworkers — those who had apartments, partners and settled lives in Russia — were determined to stay, Schwartz said.
“But by the end of the week, I think everybody was out,” she told USA TODAY. “With each day that passes, it seems that another person is tweeting that they’re going.”
Russian authorities have already restricted access to Facebook and Twitter, which have played an important role in amplifying dissent. It’s also blocked the U.S. government-funded Voice of America and Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty, German broadcaster Deutsche Welle and Latvia-based website Meduza.
“There’s been crackdowns on civil society and on the press for the past 10 years, really, and in the last year, it’s really picked up,” Schwartz said. “So in some ways, the trend was really moving in this direction. But I did not expect that there could be such a total crackdown on independent press in Russia.”
Putin’s law aims to further secure the support of rural, less educated and patriotic Russians, said Jonathan Aronson, a professor of international communication and relations at the University of Southern California.
“They’re trying to keep as many of their folks from getting accurate information about what they’re doing as possible,” Aronson told USA TODAY. “The elites are still going to be able to get that information.”
A recent Russian study surveying 2,000 people found that 58.8% of respondents supported Russia’s actions in Ukraine. Half of those who didn’t support the invasion had graduated from a university, while a third had some form of higher education.
Contributing: The Associated Press
This article originally appeared on USA TODAY: Russia censorship law cracks down on free speech and the press