The IPI global network today expresses severe concerns over a move by the Russian State Duma to develop a bill which would see journalists potentially imprisoned for publishing “false information” about the country’s armed forces.

Under the bill, the development of which was approved by chairman of the State Duma on February 28, anyone found guilty of knowingly disseminating information which “distorts the purpose, role and tasks of the Armed Forces of the Russian Federation, as well as other formations during special military and other operations” could face criminal sanctions.

If the law is passed, it would mean journalists deemed to have published false information about the Russian invasion of Ukraine could face criminal punishment including up to 15 years in prison. It is understood the law would include reporting on the number of military casualties suffered by Russian armed forces. The draft bill has yet to be submitted to the State Duma but could be discussed as early as on March 4.

“As Russia continues its war of aggression in Ukraine, its government and state-controlled regulators are moving to silence all independent reporting which dares to tell the truth about the horrific human cost of the conflict”, IPI Deputy Director Scott Griffen. “If passed, this law on so-called false information about the armed forces would add to an already restrictive web of legislation passed in recent years which limits the ability of media to carry out public interest journalism critical of the government.

“It is not hard to see how this law could immediately lead to the criminalization of journalists reporting on military losses, on the human rights abuses and potential war crimes of the Russian armed forces against the Ukrainian people, or any other information authorities would rather keep out of view of its citizens. It would also have a serious chilling effect on what remains of independent journalism in Russia, which has already undergone the biggest crackdown in more than a decade in the past year and a half.”

Griffen noted that in recent days, Russia’s Ministry of Defence and the country’s media regulator, Roskomnadzor, have accused multiple media outlets including Echo Moscow and Novaya Gazeta, whose editor-in-chief is Nobel Peace Prize winner Dmitry Muratov, of spreading “false information” about the war and injuries of Ukrainian civilians by the armed forces.

Draft bill in development

The creation of the bill was proposed by Committee on Security and Anti-Corruption and swiftly approved on Monday by Vyacheslav Volodin, the Duma’s chair and a former aide to President Vladimir Putin, who said he hoped the amendment could be passed quickly.

“We have begun to implement it in order to provide in the law, in the criminal code, criminal liability for the public dissemination of knowingly false information about the actions of the armed forces”, he said, according to multiple media reports.

It came after earlier that day the chair of the Security Committee, Vasily Piskarev, argued in the Duma that “inaccurate” reports about the military demoralized society and undermined confidence in the Russian armed forces. The MP alleged that “fakes” were “generated in Ukraine” but then “willingly spread by a number of Russian media” and on social media.

Sergei Boyarsky, First Deputy Chairman of the State Duma Committee on Information Policy, Information Technologies and Communication, United Russia faction member, said the bill could be discussed in the State Duma as early as March 4.

To become law, the draft bill would first have to be approved by a majority of the State Duma and would then be considered by the Federation Council before being signed into law by the president. The passage of legislation through the lower and then upper houses can move swiftly in Russia. It is understood the prosecutor general’s office would have powers to issue indictments on alleged violations of the law.

Restrictive web of laws

If passed, the law would become one of many restrictive amendments passed to the civil and criminal code in Russia in the last few years.

In 2019, Russia passed tough new fines which meant media that published information authorities regarded as fake news or who show “blatant disrespect” for the state online that could lead to a “mass violation of public order” could be fined up to 400,000 rubles. The legislation also handed regulators the power to block websites if they fail to comply with requests to remove such information.

A year later, at the start of the coronavirus pandemic, lawmakers then passed additional amendments to the criminal code, creating articles 207.1 and 207.2, under which media found to have deliberately spread “false information” about serious matters of public safety such as COVID-19 would face fines of up to €23,000 and up to five years in prison.

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 fines of up to 5 million rubles (€53,200).

Since then, it had issued multiple demands for media to take down articles about shelling of populated areas in Ukraine and has issued warnings to Novaya Gazeta, MediaZona, Dozhd, Echo Moscow and others. The Russian Ministry of Defence has also accused Novaya Gazeta of spreading fake information – which it strongly denies.

Over the past year and a half, 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.