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VOA, BBC Vow to Keep News Flowing Despite Russian Ban

By VOA News March 04, 2022

Access to Western news outlets—including parts of Voice of America and the BBC—were blocked by Russia's media watchdog on Friday.

Moscow restricted several sites over "deliberate and systematic circulation of materials containing false information," the media regulator Roskomnadzor said in a statement.

Requests to block the news websites were made on February 24, the day Russia invaded Ukraine, Agence-France Presse reported.
Since that date, Moscow has ordered media to refer to the war as a "special military operation."

The regulator has issued dozens of warnings to independent media, ordering them to remove content or risk being fined or blocked.

The European Union, social media platforms and TV providers in the U.S., Africa and Canada separately moved to block Russian-backed media including RT and Sputnik.

As of Friday, VOA's Russian language news website was available via a VPN in Moscow, but its English-language website remained open.

VOA, RFE/RL and BBC issued statements saying they will keep reporting and producing news for Russian audiences.

RFE/RL and VOA are both independent taxpayer-funded networks under the U.S. Agency for Global Media.

The agency described Russia's attempts to block uncensored news as "deplorable."

VOA Acting Director Yolanda Lopez on Friday acknowledged the ban, but she said, "VOA will continue to promote and support tools and resources that will allow our audiences to bypass any blocking efforts imposed on our sites in Russia."

BBC statement on reporting from within Russia.Reacting to new legislation passed by the Russian authorities, BBC Director-General Tim Davie says: pic.twitter.com/uhowHW3jkr
— BBC Press Office (@bbcpress) March 4, 2022

"Our journalists will continue their reporting, an example of free press in action," Lopez said in a statement. "Our viewers and listeners in Russia deserve access to our factual news content at this critical time, not only about the ongoing war in Ukraine, but also about all vital global events that impact their lives and actions."

RFE/RL president Jamie Fly said the ban was an attempt to block reporting on the realities of the war.

"[President Vladimir] Putin is feeding Russians a steady diet of lies about the scope and cost of the war in Ukraine," Fly said in a statement. "RFE/RL refuses to censor our content at this critical moment for our Russian audiences."

The BBC said that "independent information is a fundamental human right" and it will operate from outside Russia.

The British broadcaster on Wednesday announced it will provide up to four hours of news a day to Ukraine and parts of Russia via shortwave radio: a return to how it operated in the Cold War.

It said Friday it is "temporarily suspending" the work of its staff in Russia, citing a new media law.

Russia has pushed back on reporting about the invasion, including casualties and civilian deaths.

Ukraine's emergency agency reported Wednesday more than 2,000 deaths across the country. Russia's Defense Ministry has said nearly 500 troops were killed and 1,500 were wounded, and the U.N. estimates more than 1 million refugees.

Russia's embassies also sought to correct what Moscow sees as inaccurate reporting.

The Facebook page of the Russian embassy in Myanmar on March 2 posted a series of counter responses to what it said was "inadequate information" published by local media.

The post repeated Russian claims that the war was an operation aimed at the "demilitarization and denazification" of Ukraine and that its military does not attack civilians or cities.

Independent media have documented extensive damage to residential buildings and civilian structures.

The New York-based Committee to Protect Journalists on Friday said Russia has "moved quickly to establish total censorship."

"The Russian public cannot be deprived of information and news and be forced to rely on the Kremlin-approved interpretation of events," Gulnoza Said, CPJ's Europe and Central Asia program coordinator, said in a statement. "The censorship must stop."

Russia also moved to impose heavy penalties for what it deems false news on military movements.

The State Duma on Friday voted in a new law that would carry 15-year prison terms for false news about troops.

The bill, which is also approved by the Federation Council, will be passed along to President Putin to be signed into law.

"This legislation appears to criminalize the process of independent journalism," BBC Director-General Tim Davie said in a statement Friday. "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."

The EU moved this week to sanction Russian-backed media, blocking providers from hosting or broadcasting RT stations and Sputnik. Service providers in the U.S., Canada and South Africa all announced they would drop RT this week.

RT America announced it would cease operations in the U.S. Thursday after digital service providers dropped its broadcasts.

A senior editor at RT accused the EU and Britain of suppressing media freedom.

"We have long stopped expecting any legitimacy or reason in the UK's attempts to curtail media freedoms," Anna Belkina, RT's deputy editor in chief, told Reuters.

"Now it seems it has forgotten Brexit and is seeking to force influence over the rest of Europe too."

The Vienna-based International Press Institute cautioned that sanctions on Russian state media could result in further repression of independent media in the country.

The EU measures are "understandable and well-intentioned," the IPI said, but "decisions on whether to ban media should be taken by independent regulators."

"These bans may be used to justify reciprocal measures by Russia to restrict foreign media operating within the country," the IPI added.

The U.S. Agency for Global Media says it is working with experts in security and technology, including via the Open Technology Fund, to protect journalists and keep news flowing in Russia.

"We are making available a variety of tools to help audiences and local independent journalists circumvent internet censorship," spokesperson Laurie Moy told VOA. "The blocking of our networks will not deter USAGM from getting fact-based and reliable information to the people of Russia."

Some information in this report came from Reuters and AFP.

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