During the COVID-19 pandemic, dozens of states around the world have implemented criminal measures aimed at combatting the spread of misinformation about the virus on the internet and social media.

For many governments, these vaguely defined laws are part of an ill-judged reaction to tackling an increase of rumours and incorrect information online during the pandemic.

But in other, more autocratic countries, the criminalization of “fake news” also serves another purpose; acting as weapon with which to control information and supress critical media.

Few countries exemplify this more than Russia. Since the health crisis began, authorities have approved a new law against COVID-19-related misinformation and censored several critical reports on the government’s response.

New law; new powers

On March 31 Russian lawmakers passed amendments to Article 207 of Criminal Code, with President Putin giving final approval the very next day.

Under the new law, those found to have deliberately spread “false information” about serious matters of public safety such as COVID-19 will face fines of up to €23,000 and up to five years in prison.

Legal entities, such as media outlets, can also face fines up to €117,000 if they publish what the authorities deem to be disinformation about the outbreak.

The new law complimented already tough legislation passed in March 2019 which introduced fines for people spreading misinformation or insulting the state in traditional or social media.

While the previous “fake news” offences were punishable under the administrative code and resulted in fines and website blocking, the latest law falls under the criminal code, meaning punishment includes jail time.

Galina Arapova, director and senior media lawyer at the Mass Media Defence Centre, said the broadly written legislation would have a chilling effect on journalists writing about the pandemic.

“It’s a way to control the media and internet space, as well as the narrative of the government’s response to the crisis”, she told the International Press Institute (IPI).

“Effectively, if the government doesn’t like what particular journalists are writing about the virus – whether it’s about death rates, testing, or a lack of protective equipment – if the information is too critical or has come from “unofficial” sources, it can be viewed as criminal and punished accordingly”, she explained. “While it has mostly been used against social media users and bloggers, we have already seen it used against journalists as well.”

Ramping up censorship

Authorities took little time in putting the law to use.

On April 25, a pre-investigation was opened under the new code on Saint Petersburg-based journalist Tatyana Voltskaya, a correspondent for U.S.-funded Radio Free Europe.

The probe was launched over an interview she published on news website Sever.Realii with an anonymous doctor about the possible shortage of ventilation machines.

She was later questioned and pressured to reveal her sources. Prosecutors are currently deciding whether to bring a criminal case against her.

A few days later, on April 28, the country’s media regulatory agency, Roskomnadzor, blocked the entire website of Moscow-based medical news platform Vademecum.

The block was requested by the General Prosecutor’s Office in response to an article about insurance payments for hospital patients infected with the disease. The prosecutor alleged the report intentionally spread “false information” that risked causing significant public harm and threatened an investigation under Article 207.

On April 26, journalist Lyudmila Savitskaya was similarly questioned by police in the Western city of Pskov over an article titled “The situation is critical. How Pskov is responding to the coronavirus pandemic”.

Similar censorship occurred when on April 15 Roskomnadzor ordered outlet Novaya Gazeta to delete a critical article from its website about the human rights situation in the Republic of Chechnya during COVID-19. The order was issued days after Chechen leader Ramzan Kadyrov issued threats against the journalist who wrote the article.

Prosecutors reportedly said the article included “inaccurate information” that posed a threat to public safety. The newspaper was given 24 hours to take down the article or have its entire website blocked.

Latest attack on independent media

Oliver Money-Kyrle, IPI head of Europe advocacy and programmes, said there had been a clear pattern of censorship of articles in independent outlets which criticized Russian authorities handling of the pandemic.

“These are dangerous new powers that are forcing journalists to steer a treacherous line between reporting the truth while risking jail time and parroting official government sources while exacerbating the risks to public health” he said. “There is no justification for using the criminal code to target critical voices who stray from the government line.”

He added: “This is censorship, designed to stop journalists scrutinizing the performance of government during the crisis.”

Adverse to criticism

Before the new law was passed, similar efforts to block critical news about the pandemic were already underway in Russia.

On March 19, the communications watchdog demanded that more than 20 media outlets remove “inaccurate, socially significant information” about the coronavirus from their websites.

Among them was radio station Echo of Moscow, which Roskomnadzor instructed to remove the recording and transcript of an interview with a disease expert which criticized the government’s handling of the pandemic.

Similar take-down orders were issued to online news outlet Govorit Magadan, over an article about the death of a man from pneumonia.

Blocks on access to information

The government has also centralized public health information during the crisis.

Individual medical professionals have been banned from speaking to media, while heads of health institutions have to seek approval and coordinate with central authorities before giving interviews to the press.

These policies have further restricted the ability of journalists to gather information and testimonies about the coronavirus situation in their city or region.

Gathering information from “unofficial” sources or conducting anonymous interviews meanwhile risks sanctions or a police investigation, as in the case of Tatyana Voltskaya.

In response, one journalist association in Russia is creating a system for doctors and medical workers to anonymously speak out and report issues such as shortages of personal protective equipment directly to journalists.

The findings would then be reported to the hospital management and relevant authorities. If the situation does not improve, then doctors who agree to speak out will have their testimonies reported.

Nadezda Azhgikhina, a Russian journalist and director of PEN Moscow, said the new initiative by the Syndicat-100 was aimed at providing a public good during the crisis. “The goal is not to make sensation, but to help resolve very serious problems on the ground for doctors”, she said. “It is an act of real civil solidarity and it could develop trust and cooperation between journalists and the audience, professional and ordinary people”.

Despite the increase in censorship, Arapova told IPI that Russian authorities were still “acting carefully” in its application of the law against the media.

“The situation in Russia right now is very tense”, she said. “The government knows that if criminal charges are brought against a journalist during the pandemic there will be a strong reaction.”