Russia Outlaws a News Site and a Rights Group, Stifling Critical Voices
A Moscow court abolished one of Russia’s oldest rights groups. Russian prosecutors banned the work of a group of journalists in exile, labeling it an “undesirable organization.”
And on Friday, President Vladimir V. Putin used the occasion of Holocaust Remembrance Day to restate false claims justifying the invasion of Ukraine, as his government used the levers of the state to stifle independent voices and control how Russians see the war.
The Kremlin’s renewed push this week to quash dissent comes as the war nears the end of its first year, with Western officials estimating more than 100,000 casualties on each side. Russia and Ukraine are locked in a grinding battle of attrition in eastern Ukraine, trying to reconstitute their forces ahead of the spring, when each is likely to attempt a significant offensive.
Russian shelling killed at least eight civilians over 24 hours in eastern Ukraine, the site of the most intense fighting in recent months, Ukrainian officials said on Friday.
“The enemy is deliberately destroying our cities and towns,” the regional military governor, Pavlo Kyrylenko said on Telegram. “Civilians not involved in the protection and operation of critical infrastructure of the region should evacuate.”
But by the Russian government’s design, the Russian public would know little of those losses, the devastation caused by Russian missile strikes or the waves of men sent into frontal attacks by Russian commanders. Since the war began, the Kremlin has steadily dismantled Russia’s independent media, forcing organizations that had survived decades under Mr. Putin out of the country, and cutting off access to Facebook, the BBC and other news sources.
On Thursday, the Russian Prosecutor General’s Office designated Meduza, a popular independent news site, an “undesirable organization,” meaning that those who speak to its employees, “like” its content or even share its articles could risk criminal prosecution.
The site’s activities “pose a threat to the foundations of the constitutional order and the security of the Russian Federation,” the Prosecutor General’s Office said in a statement.
The decision may restrict the ability of Meduza journalists, based in Latvia, to speak to people inside Russia who now have reason to fear retribution. But the journalists insisted they were undeterred, saying in a statement: “We will find ways to operate in these new conditions. We will continue to report events to our readers, millions of whom are still in Russia.”
The European Union condemned the decision, calling it “yet another serious politically motivated attack on media freedom.” It also denounced the move by a Moscow City authority to terminate the rental agreements of the Sakharov Center, a museum dedicated to the history of Soviet abuses.
The two cases, the E.U. diplomatic service said in a statement, marked “a dark day for the Russian civil society and a new low point in the Kremlin’s bulldozing of rights and freedoms of the Russian citizens.”
Yet those were just two of several actions in that vein by Russian authorities this week. A Moscow City Court ordered the closure of the Moscow Helsinki Group, one of the country’s oldest human rights groups, in a decision that was condemned by the U.N. human rights office. The ruling “is yet another blow to human rights and civic space in the country,” said Marta Hurtado, a spokeswoman for the office.
In addition, a criminal case was opened against Pyotr Verzilov, the publisher of the independent site Mediazona, he said on Thursday, adding that he stood accused of “spreading falsehoods about the Russian Army.” Mr. Verzilov, who left Russia before the war, said the charges stemmed from his posts about Bucha, Ukraine, where journalists and investigators found evidence of atrocities by Russian forces.
And Roskomnadzor, the Russian internet regulator, limited access to the websites of the C.I.A. and F.B.I., according to the state news agency Tass, which said that no reason for blocking the sites was given.
In the absence of independent news organizations, many Russians rely on television, where popular channels are owned either by the state or by businessmen on good terms with the Kremlin, and all promote Mr. Putin’s government and his war. Emails leaked from Russia’s largest state-owned media company last year showed that, at times, Russia’s military and primary security service, the F.S.B., directed and advised state media employees on portraying the invasion in a positive light.
Correspondents, anchors and TV hosts have for months repeated Mr. Putin’s claims that an objective of the invasion was the “denazification” of Ukraine. Mr. Putin has falsely asserted that Ukraine’s leadership is dominated by “neo-Nazi” officials — even though Ukraine’s democratically elected president is Jewish — and has long referred to Ukraine’s 2014 revolution as a fascist coup.
In remarks to recognize Remembrance Day, Mr. Putin said that “forgetting the lessons of history leads to the repeat of terrible tragedies” and then linked the history of the Holocaust to the war in Ukraine. He accused “neo-Nazis in Ukraine” of crimes against civilians and of “ethnic cleansing,” and said that Russian soldiers were there to fight “especially this evil.”
President Volodymyr Zelensky of Ukraine, in his own Remembrance Day message, also invoked the horrors of the Holocaust in connection with the war, although he did not directly address Russia or Mr. Putin.
“Today we remember the determination of the global coalition that stopped Nazism,” Mr. Zelensky said, “and today we repeat it even more strongly than before: never again to hatred, never again to indifference.”
Other Ukrainian government officials were more direct. Andriy Yermak, a top adviser to the president, said that the tragedy of the Holocaust “should have served as a warning to prevent new crimes against humanity.”
“But today, in the very center of Europe, a genocide of Ukrainians is occurring,” he wrote on Twitter. “We will neither forgive nor forget anything.”
Ivan Nechepurenko, Cassandra Vinograd, Matina Stevis-Gridneff, Carly Olson, and Matthew Mpoke Bigg contributed reporting.