Ukraine war: BBC temporarily suspends journalists' work in Russia

The move follows a new law passed in the Russian Duma, the Lower House of its Parliament, on Friday, which warns of imprisonment if so-called fake news leads to serious consequences.
BBC. (File Photo| AFP)
BBC. (File Photo| AFP)

LONDON: The BBC said on Friday that it had no choice but to temporarily suspend its journalists' work in Russia after the Kremlin brought in a new law that could mean a jail term of up to 15 years for anyone spreading "fake" information about the country's armed forces.

BBC Director-General Tim Davie said the legislation "appears to criminalise the process of independent journalism" and that safety of the British Broadcasting Corporation staff is "paramount".

It said that its news service in Russian will continue to operate from outside Russia.

The move follows a new law passed in the Russian Duma, the Lower House of its Parliament, on Friday, which warns of imprisonment if so-called fake news leads to serious consequences.

"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," said Tim Davie.

He added: "Our BBC News service in Russian will continue to operate from outside Russia. 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. I'd like to pay tribute to all of them, for their bravery, determination and professionalism."

"We remain committed to making accurate, independent information available to audiences around the world, including the millions of Russians who use our news services. Our journalists in Ukraine and around the world will continue to report on the invasion of Ukraine."

The new law is designed to give Russia powers to suppress information that it deems as "fake" about its invasion of Ukraine, which the Kremlin calls a special military operation.

Russia's Upper House of Parliament approved the law on Friday, and it could take effect in the coming days after President Vladimir Putin signs it off.

Access to BBC websites had already been restricted in Russia.

News outlets Deutsche Welle, Meduza and Radio Liberty also had their services limited, Russia's state-owned news agency RIA said.

Twitter and Facebook have both reported having their services restricted and deliberately slowed down.

Meanwhile, UK Home Secretary Priti Patel on Friday formally launched the Ukraine family scheme visas, announced earlier by the government, to allow British citizens and those settled in the UK to bring over their Ukrainian relatives impacted by the conflict with Russia.

The Indian-origin minister travelled to Medyka in eastern Poland on the border with Ukraine to witness the situation on the ground and extend the visas to those fleeing the war zone into neighbouring countries.

The family scheme visas will be offered free of charge and allow permission to remain in the UK for three years to Ukrainian family members of UK-based nationals and those with permanent residency.

"It's heart-breaking to have met families, women and children forced from their homeland because of the monstrous Russian invasion," Patel said after her visit to a reception centre for Ukrainian refugees in Medyka, accompanied by Polish Deputy Interior Minister Bartosz Grodecki.

"Our expanded Ukraine Family Scheme is now fully open and to see the first people who will apply was wonderful. While we want people to be able to return to their homes at the end of this diabolical invasion, giving thousands of people a route to the UK is the right thing to do," she said.

"The whole of the UK is united in our condemnation of Russia's barbaric and cold-blooded actions and the government is doing everything possible to make certain our humanitarian support is in Ukraine's best interests," she added.

UK Home Office staff have also travelled to Poland to provide advice to refugees, including processing visas and ensuring a rapid visa service to help with the flow of people coming over the Ukrainian border.

The Home Office said a new pop-up Visa Application Centre in Rzeszow, Poland, has also been opened and the combined total number of visa appointments in the region will increase to 6,000 from next week.

"The British government will do everything it can to support the Ukrainian people at this critical moment as they fight for freedom," Patel said, ahead of her visit to Poland.

"I have developed the Ukraine family scheme following discussions with the Ukrainian government and neighbouring countries and I am proud to have launched it within a matter of days, enabling Ukrainians with family in the United Kingdom to be welcomed safely, quickly and free of charge," she said.

"The United Kingdom stands to shoulder with Ukrainians, providing humanitarian practical support," she added.

The visa, which was initially intended for immediate family, has been expanded to include parents, grandparents and siblings.

A separate sponsorship scheme will also allow individuals and organisations to bring Ukrainians to the UK.

British Prime Minister Boris Johnson has said the UK could take in 200,000 or more Ukrainians under these initiatives.

The Opposition Labour Party has called for further emergency protection visas for Ukrainians fleeing the Russian attacks as a “simple and safe route to sanctuary right now”.

The United Nations (UN) estimates that more than a million people have fled Ukraine since Russian President Vladimir Putin ordered the attack last week.

"Many relatives of UK residents still do not qualify under the family visa, the community sponsorship programme will take time to set up, and there is still no provision for people in Britain to help Ukrainian friends," the Labour Party said.

On Thursday, the Liberal Democrats suggested the government should seize properties owned by oligarchs close to President Putin and use them to house Ukrainian refugees.

When asked about the proposal on LBC Radio on Friday, Deputy Prime Minister Dominic Raab replied: "Yes, absolutely. We are looking at everything in the round, it is a team effort across government."

Meanwhile, the UK government announced another set of full asset freeze and travel ban on two of Russia's leading oligarchs with "significant" UK interests and close links to the Kremlin.

The Foreign, Commonwealth and Development Office (FCDO) said on Thursday night that oligarchs Alisher Usmanov and Igor Shuvalov, worth a combined USD 19 billion, have been sanctioned with immediate effect.

"Our message to Putin and his allies has been clear from day one, invading Ukraine would have serious and crippling economic consequences," said UK Foreign Secretary Liz Truss.

"Sanctioning Usmanov and Shuvalov sends a clear message that we will hit oligarchs and individuals closely associated with the Putin regime and his barbarous war. We won't stop here. Our aim is to cripple the Russian economy and starve Putin's war machine," she said.

The minister also plans to establish a so-called "Oligarch Taskforce" of ministers and officials from across UK government departments as an expert group to coordinate sanctions, helping build cases against the list of oligarchs it has identified as targets.

As part of the latest targets, Usmanov has had interests in English football clubs Arsenal and Everton.

He owns Beechwood House in north London's Highgate area, worth an estimated GBP 48 million, and the 16th century Sutton Place estate in Surrey.

Shuvalov's assets in the UK include two luxury apartments in central London worth an estimated GBP 11 million.

He is said to be a "core part" of Putin's inner circle, and headed up Russia's bid for the 2018 Football World Cup.

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