CNN, BBC Suspend Operations in Russia Amid Fears of Journalist Arrests

News outlets CNN and BBC have decided to temporarily suspend their journalists' work in Russia to protect their staff.

The move is in response to legislation Russia's parliament passed Friday, which bans the spread of what the government calls "fake" information about the war and the country's armed forces, according to the BBC. The punishment for this is up to 15 years in prison.

Access to the BBC was restricted by Russia's government shortly after its web traffic in the country increased by about 252 percent for its English-language site and its year-to-date weekly average on its Russian-language site tripled, the BBC said. As Russia increases its media restrictions and crackdowns, more outlets are closing or leaving the country.

"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," BBC Director-General Tim Davie said in a statement. "I'd like to pay tribute to all of them, for their bravery, determination and professionalism."

A CNN spokesperson said in a social media statement that the news outlet will "stop broadcasting in Russia while we continue to evaluate the situation and our next steps moving forward."

Bloomberg News also announced Friday it is temporarily suspending work of its journalists, "with great regret."

"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," said Editor-in-Chief John Micklethwait.

The legislation will impose prison terms of up to 15 years for people charged with spreading "fake news" about the military or calling for sanctions against the country. It's the latest step in a major crackdown on independent media in Russia.

Two liberal local broadcasters, Ekho Moskvy and TV Rain, went off the air Thursday under pressure from prosecutors who demanded that access be restricted because of their coverage of Putin's war in Ukraine. The websites of the BBC, Deutsche Welle and Meduza, an independent news group, weren't accessible Friday. Facebook and Twitter were also blocked by the country's communications regulator.

The Russian parliament voted unanimously in favor of the bill, and Russian President Vladimir Putin is expected to sign it into law, meaning it will likely take effect as soon as Saturday, according to the Associated Press.

Russian-controlled news outlets have been referring to the invasion of Ukraine as a "special military operation." Newsweek previously reported that Roskomnadzor, a Russian media watchdog, has ordered the country's outlets to avoid terms like "assault," "invasion" or "declaration of war."

However, not all outlets have gone along with these restrictions. Publisher VK-media released antiwar editions of several of its newspapers, and independent television channel TV Rain (Dozhd) ended its final broadcast with a silent walkout protest against the war after Russian authorities ordered it to close.

The BBC's statement added that although it's suspending its operations inside Russia, Russian-language coverage will continue outside of the country.

"We remain committed to making accurate, independent information available to audiences around the world, including the millions of Russians who use our news services," Davie said.

In addition to the BBC, Roskomnadzor restricted access to Russian-language news sources Voice of America and Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty, which are funded by the U.S. government, as well as Germany's Deutsche Welle and Latvia's Meduza, the AP reported.

In response to the increasing media crackdown, the U.S. Department of State expressed its concern about what it called a "full assault on media freedom and the truth" in a statement.

"The people of Russia did not choose this war. Putin did," department spokesperson Ned Price said. "They have a right to know about the death, suffering and destruction being inflicted by their government on the people of Ukraine. The people of Russia also have a right to know about the human costs of this senseless war to their own soldiers."

Update 03/04/22, 5:30 p.m. ET: This story was updated to add information on CNN and Bloomberg News suspending work in Russia.

Update 03/04/22, 1:05 p.m. ET: This story was updated to add more information and background.

BBC, London
The BBC has temporarily suspended its Russian news service. Above, people walk near the entrance to the BBC Broadcasting House on October 22, 2012, in London. Photo by Peter Macdiarmid/Getty Images