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Russia threatens jail time for spread of ‘fake’ news over Ukraine war

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Russia‘s parliament on Friday passed a law imposing a jail term of up to 15 years for spreading intentionally “fake” news about the military, stepping up the information war over the conflict in Ukraine.

Russian officials have repeatedly said that false information has been spread by Russia’s enemies such as the United States and its Western European allies in an attempt to sow discord among the Russian people.

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Lawmakers passed amendments to the criminal code making the spread of “fake” information an offence punishable with fines or jail terms. They also imposed fines for public calls for sanctions against Russia.

“If the fakes lead to serious consequences then imprisonment of up to 15 years threatens,” the lower house of parliament, known as the Duma in Russian, said in a statement.

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The Duma outlined a scale of punishments for anyone deemed to have discredited the armed forces, with stiffer penalties for those who intentionally spread fake information or called for unsanctioned public action.

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The amendments, which could not be viewed by Reuters on the Duma website, appear to give the Russian state much stronger powers to crack down.

“Literally by tomorrow, this law will force punishment – and very tough punishment – on those who lied and made statements which discredited our armed forces,” Duma chairman Vyacheslav Volodin said.

President Vladimir Putin said the “special military operation” was essential to ensure Russian security after the United States enlarged the NATO military alliance to Russia’s borders and supported pro-Western leaders in Kyiv.

Read more: EU to step up Russia sanctions as Ukraine calls for NATO no-fly zone

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Russian officials do not use the word “invasion” and say Western media have failed to report on what they cast as the “genocide” of Russian-speaking people in Ukraine.

The amendments have to be approved by the upper house of parliament before going to Putin to be signed into law.

'TOUGH PUNISHMENT'

Russian opposition leaders have warned that the Kremlin could crack down on dissent after Putin ordered the operation.

Russia’s communications watchdog also cut access to several foreign news organizations’ websites, including the BBC and Deutsche Welle, for spreading what it alleged was false information about its war in Ukraine.

“Access has been restricted to a host of information resources owned by foreigners,” the watchdog, known as Roskomnadzor, said in a statement.

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Ukrainian servicemen walk as fire and smoke rise over a building following shelling in Kyiv, Ukraine on March 3. Russia has launched a wide-ranging attack on Ukraine, hitting cities and bases with airstrikes or shelling. Efrem Lukatsky/AP

Russia has repeatedly complained that Western media organizations offer a partial – and often anti-Russian – view of the world while failing to hold their own leaders to account for foreign wars such as Iraq and corruption.
Britain’s BBC said on Friday it would temporarily suspend the work of all its journalists and support staff in Russia following the introduction of the new law.

Tim Davie, the director general of the BBC, said in a statement the legislation appeared to criminalize the process of independent journalism.

“It leaves us no other option than to temporarily suspend the work of all BBC News journalists and their support staff within the Russian Federation while we assess the full implications of this unwelcome development,” he said.

He said the BBC News service in Russian would continue to operate from outside Russia.

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“The safety of our staff is paramount and we are not prepared to expose them to the risk of criminal prosecution simply for doing their jobs,” Davie said.

(Reporting by Moscow bureau and Kate Holton, Writing by Guy Faulconbridge, Editing by Simon Cameron-Moore. Angus MacSwan, Paul Sandle and James Davey)

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