The recent adoption by Russia of a punitive “fake war news” law is an alarming move by the Government to gag and blindfold an entire population, independent UN human rights experts said on Friday.

The same law introduces penalties for “discrediting” and “calling for obstruction” of the use of the Russian armed forces. The maximum penalty is five years in prison.

Denying the invasion​

“While the Government claims that the purpose of the new legislation is to protect the ‘truth’ about what it euphemistically calls a ‘special military operation’ in Ukraine, in reality the law places Russia under a total information blackout on the war and in so doing gives an official seal of approval to disinformation and misinformation,” said the independent experts appointed by the Human Rights Council, in a press release published by UN human rights office, OHCHR.

This law is yet another drastic step in a long string of measures over the years, restricting freedom of expression and media freedom and further shrinking the civic space in the Russian Federation, they said.

The law has had a chilling effect, forcing some media outlets to self-censor their reporting on the war in Ukraine.

In less than a week, several national media outlets have closed down or suspended their activities, due to the increased restrictions on reporting.

International media response​

Fearing for the safety of their staff, several international media outlets also announced their intention when the law was introduced, to suspend reporting from Moscow.

Last week, according to the press release, the Russian authorities blocked or limited access to various news websites including the BBC, Deutsche Welle and RFE, as well as Facebook and Twitter, by users in the country.

By restricting reporting and blocking access to information online the authorities are not only choking the last vestiges of independent, pluralistic media in Russia, but they are also depriving the population of their right to access diverse news and views at this critical time when millions of Russians legitimately want to know more about the situation in Ukraine,” the independent experts said.

These restrictions on media and access to information online, take place against the backdrop of a crackdown on thousands of anti-war protesters and human rights defenders, the press release notes.

Mass arrests​

The widespread allegations of the indiscriminate use of force and mass arrests of protesters by the authorities is deeply alarming. The primary responsibility of authorities when policing assemblies is to protect peaceful protesters and to facilitate the exercise of the right to freedom of peaceful assembly,” the experts added.

The experts also expressed their grave concern at the Russian military’s targeting of media workers and media installations in Ukraine which has endangered the safety of journalists, led to various attacks against media workers and damaged broadcasting infrastructure.

Investigation call​

They called on the independent international commission of inquiry, recently established by the UN Human Rights Council, to fully investigate and ensure accountability for violations and abuses of the right to information and freedom of expression, and all attacks and threats to the safety of journalists in Ukraine.

Special Rapporteurs and independent experts are appointed by the Geneva-based UN Human Rights Council to examine and report back on a specific human rights theme or a country situation. The positions are honorary and the experts are not paid for their work.