The IPI global network today expressed grave concern over the initial approval by Russia’s State Duma of a new law which would hand the State Prosecutor’s Office formal legal powers to shut down, censor and block the websites of media outlets without a court order.

The draft amendments to the media law, which were approved after a first reading by the lower house on March 24, mean that any media outlet which publishes what the authorities deem to be “fake” information or news, discredits the Russian armed forces, or calls for sanctions against Russia or protests, faces having its registration or broadcast license immediately revoked.

In addition, journalists who quote from or republish information from reports that discredit or include “fakes” about the armed forces would be liable for criminal prosecution. Currently, only the media outlet which publishes the original information can be punished.

The strengthened media law would grant the prosecutor’s office the official power to ban and restrict foreign media operating within the country and revoke the accreditation of their correspondents and journalists. The State Duma said these measures were aimed at retaliating against “unfriendly actions of a foreign state against Russian media abroad”.

The extrajudicial powers of the state prosecutor and his deputies would be applicable in a raft of new circumstances, including:

– information which discredits the Russia armed forces;

– false information about the Russian armed forces or state bodies abroad;

– calls for organisation or participation in unauthorised rallies or events such as protests or calls for sanctions against Russia, its citizens or its companies;

– disrespect for society, the state, state symbols, the constitution and state authorities; and

– information that poses a threat to public safety, threatens mass disruption of public order, or false information about measures taken to ensure citizens’ security.

“If approved, this media law would be one of the most draconian in the world and would represent the final legal nail in the coffin for any form of independent or watchdog journalism in Russia”, said IPI Deputy Director Scott Griffen. “The reality is that since the war in Ukraine began, the State Prosecutor’s Office has already censored, blocked and threatened into submission what remained of the country’s free media which dared to challenge the Kremlin’s narrative about the invasion.

“This law would simply provide legal grounds for the widespread state censorship that has already taken place, strengthen authorities’ grip over the media landscape and make the re-emergence of any form of journalism which seeks to hold the government or military to account significantly more challenging, if not impossible. What we are looking at here is the near total eradication of journalistic freedoms.”

Website blocking powers

In addition to registration revocation, the proposed changes also include measures which would facilitate the indefinite blocking of any media outlet which publishes what authorities deem to be any of the “illegal” content listed above. Media repeatedly publishing this content would have their websites restricted permanently, with mirror websites also banned.

When a blocking decision has been made by the State Prosecutor’s Office it would be sent to Russia’s state internet and communications regulator, Roskomnadzor, which would enforce the blocking immediately, without prior warning for the media outlet. While legal challenges are possible, during this time the platform would remain inaccessible.

Though the new law would formalise these powers, over the last three months the State Prosecutor’s Office and Roskomnadzor have already arbitrarily blocked access to 125 media websites within Russia, including some of the country’s largest remaining independent news platforms, according to IPI’s dedicated monitoring platform. Many of these decisions were taken without the media outlet ever being informed.

Almost no independent media remain operational within Russia. Many have shut and others have suspended publication indefinitely, with hundreds of journalists fleeing the country. Many foreign media have exited the country over fears of criminal prosecution under the law passed in March 2022 which criminalized “fake” news or public actions aimed at discrediting the Russian army. All the websites of these media have been blocked within Russian territory.

Under the new law, if the registration of a media outlet is revoked, it loses the right to publish information under its brand. This means well-known newspapers or broadcasters such as Novaya Gazeta or Ekho Moscow could be stripped of their legal right to publish under their brand name, which could then be transferred to new owners.

Authorities would have the power to cancel the registration of both Russian and foreign titles. Roskomnadzor would be responsible for invalidating the media registration and terminating broadcasting licenses. Under current legislation, registration of a media can only be revoked with a court order.

The amendments would create a new article 56.2 in the law 2124-1 on the media and were developed by the State Duma’s commission on countering foreign interference in the affairs of the Russian Federation. The bill now must go through two additional readings and then be reviewed by upper house of parliament before being signed into law by Vladimir Putin.