The IPI global network today urges Russian regulatory and government authorities to immediately reverse the decision to remove two of the country’s last remaining independent broadcasters from the airwaves and to halt the censorship of media reporting on the reality of the war in Ukraine.

On March 1, Russia’s general prosecutor’s office ordered the country’s government-controlled information and media regulator, Roskomnadzor, to block the broadcasts of Dozhd TV and Ekho Moskvy (Echo of Moscow) and to bar access to their websites within Russia.

News of the blocks was reported by both media, which have long been the sole remaining major independent broadcasters in Russia in the radio and television market, respectively. While both have faced regulatory pressure, the broadcast and websites bans represent a dramatic escalation in effort to silence critical voices amidst the country’s invasion of Ukraine.

“IPI’s global network calls on Russian authorities to immediately reverse the decision to block broadcasting and website access of Dozhd TV and Ekho Moskvy”, IPI Deputy Director Scott Griffen said. “A few years ago, the idea of these major broadcasters being blocked within Russia would have been unthinkable. Today, both have been ensnarled in the Kremlin’s information war and silenced for their factual reporting about the invasion. This undisguised censorship is a grave attack on the freedom of the press and another sign of the efforts to create a blackout of information on the reality of the conflict.”

One day after Ekho Moskvy was forced off the air, YouTube restricted access to the radio station’s channel on its platform. Ekho Moskvy’s editor-in-chief Alexei Venediktov said that Google, which owns YouTube, had blocked the channel due to its “connection to Gazprom”, Russia’s state-owned energy corporation which has been sanctioned by western countries. YouTube has not commented publicly on the decision.

“Google and YouTube’s decision to block Ekho Moskvy is inexplicable and should be reversed immediately”, Griffen added. “While the station is owned by Gazprom Media, it is well known that it retains some degree of editorial independence and has long been one of the only remaining major broadcasters on in Russia offering independent and critical coverage. Blocking it only further restricts the free flow of information and muzzles an important pluralistic voice within the country.”

Censorship efforts increasing

The prosecutor general’s office ordered the bans over what it called the “purposeful and systematic” publishing by Dozhd and Echo of Moscow of news reports which contained “calls for extremist activity, violence” and “deliberately false information regarding the actions of Russian military personnel as part of a special operation to protect the DPR and LPR”. It offered no specifics and did not cite which content it found problematic.

In recent days, Dozhd TV and Ekho Moskvy had been accused by the regulator of spreading “false information” about the invasion, which the Kremlin continues to call a “special military operation”. Unlike other Russian media echoing the government narrative about the pretext of the war, both outlets have offered pluralistic coverage and opinions and reported on the anti-war protests across the country.

Responding to the news, the editor-in-chief of Ekho Moskvy and one of the country’s best-known journalists, Aleksei Venediktov, said: “The Editorial board of Ekho Moskvy absolutely disagrees with the demand of the Prosecutor-General’s Office that led to the radio station being cut off the air”. Both media have rejected the allegations and said they would challenge the decision in the courts.

The websites for both media outlets were unavailable in Russia shortly after the decision was announced. Access remains open outside for internet users outside Russia. It came as Russia continued efforts to slow and restrict access to social media companies such as Meta and Twitter within Russia.

Regulator in overdrive

Since the invasion of Ukraine, Roskomnadzor has ramped up censorship efforts, threatening media with fines for using the terms “invasion” or “war” and blocking access to news outlets reporting factually on the conflict and shelling of Ukrainian cities by the Russian military.

On February 24, the regulator warned media outlets they were “obliged” to only publish verified data and information on the conflict from “official Russian sources” and that media knowingly “disseminating false information” could face sanctions under article 13.15 of the Code of Administrative Offenses, with administrative fine of up to 5 million rubles (€53,200).

Since then, it has issued multiple demands for media to take down articles about shelling of populated areas in Ukraine. On February 28, Roskomnadzor blocked the websites of six online media outlets reporting on the war: Interfax Ukraine, Nastoyashchee Vremya, New Times, Krim-realii, Current Time, Doxa and Gordon.

These blocks came on the request of the prosecutor general’s office, which said the media outlets had spread “significant untrue information about the shelling of Ukrainian cities and the death of civilians in Ukraine as a result of the actions of the Russian Army, as well as materials in which the ongoing operation is called an attack, invasion, or a declaration of war”.

Journalists in Russia covering anti-war demonstrations have also faced widespread harassment and arbitrary detention. IPI has documented more than two dozen cases of Russian and international journalists being arbitrarily detained while carrying out their professional duties and reporting from the scene of anti-war protests.

Over the past year, as IPI has documented, independent journalism in Russia faced the biggest crackdown in more than a decade, as the authorities moved to solidify control by weaponizing a Soviet-style “foreign agent” law to blacklist independent media outlets and impose crippling fines, forcing advertisers to pull out and starving media financially.