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Kremlin’s Cracking Down on Free Speech: Russian Law Used to Punish Journalists and Social Media Users

In March of last year, shortly after the start of the invasion, Russia introduced a law criminalizing the sharing of information about the “special military operation” in Ukraine that differed from the Kremlin’s narrative.[0] Those found guilty of doing so can face jail terms of up to 15 years and a five-year ban on managing or posting on social media or other internet resources.[1]

This law has been used to punish journalists and other individuals for their accounts of the truth of what is happening in Ukraine. Maria Ponomarenko, a journalist for the RusNews outlet, was arrested in April for publishing information about the Russian bombing of a theater in southern Ukraine’s Mariupol, which is believed to have killed hundreds of civilians, despite the Kremlin’s denials of responsibility.[0] Prosecutors requested that Ponomarenko be sentenced to nine years in jail on Tuesday, and the court sentenced her to six years instead.[2]

Alexander Nevzorov, a television journalist and former lawmaker, was convicted in absentia in February for allegedly spreading “false information” about Russia’s war on Ukraine and sentenced to eight years in prison.[3]

Most recently, Ukrainian-born Russian journalist and blogger Veronika Belotserkovskaya was sentenced to nine years in jail in absentia for spreading “knowingly false information” about the invasion of Ukraine.[4] Belotserkovskaya was also banned from continuing her profession as a journalist for five years.

The prosecution claimed that Belotserkovskaya’s social media posts contained “deliberately false information about the commission by the Armed Forces of the Russian Federation of the murders of children, the bombing of the maternity hospital in Mariupol and the killing of civilians in Bucha”.[5] The post which is thought to have particularly drawn the ire of the Kremlin was her saying: “I do not consider the Ukrainian People my enemy. I consider them brothers and sisters.”[5]

Ivan Losev from the Siberian city of Chita was also fined 70,000 Russian rubles (US$975) for publicly recounting his dream involving president Zelensky.[6] His mother Nelli Loseva was fined 35,000 Russian rubles ($489) for liking a post that criticized Russian authorities, and another 30,000 rubles ($419) for liking her son’s post about his Zelensky dream.[6]

0. “Russia Ukraine war: Jailed Russian anti-war activist tells Putin his regime is close to collapse” Daily Mail, 15 Feb. 2023, https://www.dailymail.co.uk/news/article-11753353/Russia-Ukraine-war-Jailed-Russian-anti-war-activist-tells-Putin-regime-close-collapse.html

1. “Russia Jails Blogger for 9 Years in Absentia for ‘False Information' on War” The Moscow Times, 6 Feb. 2023, https://www.themoscowtimes.com/2023/02/06/russia-jails-blogger-for-9-years-in-absentia-for-false-information-on-war-a80150

2. “Russian authorities seek 9-year prison term for journalist Maria Ponomarenko, detain RFE/RL columnist Iskander Yasaveyev” CPJ Press Freedom Online, 7 Feb. 2023, https://cpj.org/2023/02/russian-authorities-seek-9-year-prison-term-for-journalist-maria-ponomarenko-detain-rfe-rl-columnist-iskander-yasaveyev

3. “Russia sentences popular cookbook author over Ukraine posts” Devdiscourse, 6 Feb. 2023, https://www.devdiscourse.com/article/law-order/2345281-russia-sentences-popular-cookbook-author-over-ukraine-posts

4. “No amount of disinformation can rewrite Russia's lies and deceit: UK delegation to the OSCE” GOV.UK, 10 Feb. 2023, https://www.gov.uk/government/speeches/no-amount-of-disinformation-can-rewrite-russias-lies-and-deceit-uk-delegation-to-the-osce

5. “Russian Celebrity Chef Sentenced To Prison For Criticizing Vladimir Putin” Radar Online, 7 Feb. 2023, https://radaronline.com/p/russian-celebrity-chef-sentenced-criticizing-vladimir-putin-raising-money-ukrainian-army

6. “Russia's Fight Against Critics now Includes People who Dream about Zelensky” OCCRP, 9 Feb. 2023, https://www.occrp.org/en/daily/17305-russia-s-fight-against-critics-now-includes-people-who-dream-about-zelensky