Hot Topics: Russian censorship law targets ‘fake news’ about war in Ukraine – how it affects media outlets, protestors

  • Recent legislation criminalises spreading information that goes against the government’s position on the war in Ukraine
  • Not only has this affected media organisations and anti-war activists, but Instagram and its owner Meta have also gotten into hot water with Russian authorities
Doris Wai |

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Marina Ovsyannikova holds a poster that reads, “Stop the war. Don’t believe the propaganda.” Photo: AFP / Channel One

Hot Topics takes an issue that’s being discussed in the news and allows you to compare and analyse different articles and viewpoints on the subject. Our questions encourage you to examine the topic in-depth and can be used on your own or with a friend.

Context: Media outlets suspend Russia operation because of jail threat from ‘fake news’ law

Western media outlets, including the CNN and Bloomberg news, have temporarily suspended operations in Russia. This comes after the country’s lawmakers approved legislation criminalising reporting of the war in Ukraine that differs from the government’s position.

“The change to the criminal code, which seems designed to turn any independent reporter into a criminal purely by association, makes it impossible to continue any semblance of normal journalism inside the country,” Bloomberg Editor-in-Chief John Micklethwait said in a statement.

This has happened after the Russian parliament voted unanimously on March 4 to approve a draft censorship law criminalising the intentional spread of what Russia deems to be “fake” reports.

Explainer: What’s going on with Russia and Ukraine?

Russians could face prison sentences of up to 15 years for spreading information that goes against the government’s position on the war in Ukraine. Authorities have also blocked access to foreign media outlets.

Russian officials have repeatedly decried reports of the country’s military setbacks or civilian deaths in Ukraine as “fake” reports. State media outlets refer to Russia’s invasion of Ukraine on February 24 as a “special military operation” rather than a “war” or “invasion”.

Russia communications regulator, Roskomnadzor, has also blocked five media organisations based abroad that publish news in Russian.

They had published “false information”, the regulator said in a statement carried by Russian news agencies, on subjects including “the methods of carrying out combat activities (attacks on the civilian population, strikes on civil infrastructure objects), the numbers of losses of the Russian Federation Armed Forces and victims among the civilian population”.

Refugees walk across train tracks to board a train to Bucharest after fleeing Ukraine to Romania. Photo: Reuters

The blocks affect the BBC, the US government-funded Voice of America and Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty, German broadcaster Deutsche Welle and Latvia-based website Meduza. They are among the most influential and often critical foreign media publishing in Russian.

Some well-known media outlets within Russia have chosen to close rather than face heavy restrictions on what they can report. News website Znak announced its closure soon after the parliament approved the draft bill.

On March 3, Russia’s top independent radio station Ekho Moskvy was closed and independent television station Dozdh suspended operations after receiving a threat of closure from the authorities.
Associated Press and Reuters

Question prompts:

  • List TWO reasons governments engage in censorship.

  • Explain TWO ways that freedom of speech has been limited in Russia, based on Context.

  • According to Context, identify the FIVE media organisations that have been banned in Russia, and explain why they were banned.

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News: ‘They are lying to you’ – anti-war protester disrupts live Russian state TV news

An anti-war protester interrupted a live news bulletin on Russia’s state TV Channel One last Monday, holding up a sign behind the studio presenter and shouting slogans denouncing the war in Ukraine.

The sign, in English and Russian, reads: “NO WAR. Stop the war. Don’t believe propaganda. They are lying to you here”. Another phrase, which looked like “Russians against war”, was partly obscured.

“Stop the war. No to war,” the woman protester could be heard shouting, as the news anchor continued to read from her teleprompter. The protester could be seen and heard for several seconds before the channel switched to a different report to remove her from the screen.

The woman was named by OVD-Info, an independent protest-monitoring group, and by the head of the Agora human rights group, as Marina Ovsyannikova, an employee of the channel.

Marina Ovsyannikova could face further criminal charges for staging an on-air protest with an anti-war sign behind a studio presenter. Photo: Reuters

Pavel Chikov, head of Agora, said Ovsyannikova had been arrested and taken to a Moscow police station.

She was fined 30,000 roubles (HK$2,226) for the protest, but could face further criminal charges. There was an investigation into the alleged spreading of lies about Russian forces, the state news agency Tass reported, citing a source from the investigating authorities.

There are fears she could still be prosecuted under a new media law, which provides for up to 15 years in prison.

In an interview with German magazine Der Spiegel published last Wednesday, Ovsyannikova said she was currently hiding out with friends.

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In a video recorded before the incident and posted online, Ovsyannikova described herself as a Channel One employee and said she was ashamed to have worked for years spreading government propaganda. She said her father was Ukrainian, and her mother Russian.

“What is happening now in Ukraine is a crime, and Russia is the aggressor country. The responsibility for that aggression lies on the conscience of only one man, and that man is Vladimir Putin,” she said.

“The next 10 generations of our descendants will not wash away the shame of this fratricidal war,” she said. She urged Russians to go out and demonstrate.

Authorities have broken up anti-war protests. According to OVD-Info, which monitors protests and provides legal assistance to those detained, more than 14,000 people have been arrested.
Reuters and Deutsche Presse-Agentur

Question prompts:

  • Explain why Ovsyannikova protested specifically on Channel One, and who her intended audience was.

  • How might Ovsyannikova’s protest have flouted Russia’s new law on “fake news”? Explain your answer using News and Context.

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Issue: Russia restricts Instagram access over its new policy on violent posts in Ukraine

Instagram was inaccessible in Russia last Monday after Moscow accused its parent company Meta of allowing calls for violence against Russians, including the military, on its platforms. This came a few days after the country launched a criminal case against the tech giant.

Earlier last month, Meta said it was temporarily allowing some posts on Facebook and Instagram calling for the death of Russian President Vladimir Putin or Belarusian President Alexander Lukashenko.

Meta later said this temporary change in its content policy, only applicable for Ukraine, was needed to let users voice opposition to Russia’s attack. The social media firm clarified a few days later that it was narrowing its content moderation policy for Ukraine to prohibit calls for the death of a head of state.

Instagram has been inaccessible in Russia since March 14 after Moscow accused its parent company Meta of allowing calls for violence against Russians, including the military, on its platforms. Photo: AFP

Meta’s initial relaxing of its rules was met immediately with controversy, and the UN voiced alarm, warning it could spark “hate speech” against Russians. UN rights office spokeswoman Elizabeth Throssell said that the policy lacked clarity, which “could certainly contribute to hate speech directed at Russians in general”.

Meta’s decision has drawn sharply contrasting views.

“The policy regards calls for violence against Russian soldiers,” said Emerson Brooking, a disinformation expert at the Atlantic Council’s Digital Forensic Research Lab. “A call for violence here ... is also a call for resistance because Ukrainians resist a violent invasion.”

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But some expressed deep concerns, like Lehigh University professor Jeremy Littau who tweeted: “‘We don’t allow hate speech except against certain people from a certain country’ is one hell of a can of worms.”

At the beginning of this month, Moscow had already blocked Facebook and restricted Twitter.
Agence France-Presse and Reuters

Question prompts:

  • What did Throssell mean she said that Meta allowing calls for violence against Russian forces could “could certainly contribute to hate speech directed at Russians in general”?

  • Using your answer above, explain how social media influences our perception of news, our actions and our behaviour.

What is a no-fly zone and why it is unlikely in Ukraine


Graphic: Brian Wang

Question prompts:

  • What are the THREE forms of censorship depicted in the cartoon, and how do each of these affect how people understand the news?

  • Based on Context and Issue, identify ONE other source of news that should be added to the cartoon.

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  1. Censorship law: the Russian government passed a “fake news” law on March 4 that imposes prison sentences of up to 15 years on those spreading information that contradicts the Russian government’s narrative on the war, and words such as “war” and “invasion” are banned. The law also punishes offences committed before it was passed.

  2. Hate speech: abusive or threatening speech or writing that expresses prejudice against a particular group, especially based on race, gender, religion, sexual orientation or country of origin

  3. Propaganda: information, especially of a biased or misleading nature, used to promote a political cause or point of view

  4. Russia’s invasion of Ukraine: refers to Russia’s ongoing invasion of Ukraine, which began on February 24. It is the largest military conflict in Europe since World War II. Ukraine is a democracy of 44 million people, and about 3 million refugees have fled Ukraine to neighbouring countries since the invasion began, according to the UN. The UN General Assembly has since adopted a resolution that condemns the invasion and demands a full withdrawal.

  5. “Special military operation”: a term Russian President Vladimir Putin used to refer to Russia’s invasion of Ukraine on February 24. Putin said the purpose of the operation was to “demilitarise and denazify Ukraine” and to “protect [its] people who have been subjected to bullying and genocide”.

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