The State Duma, Russia’s lower house, approved a bill that would punish anyone found spreading false information or “discrediting” volunteer groups fighting in Ukraine with up to 15 years in prison.

The amendment, which still needs to be approved by Russia’s upper house and President Putin, builds on Moscow’s existing laws, which were passed a year ago and were made to quell criticism of the so-called “special military operation in Ukraine”.

Mercenary groups, volunteer units and other organizations that “assist” the Russian army would be shielded from criticism under this proposed amendment, as the current law only covers ordinary soldiers.

The bill follows a direct request from the leader of the mercenary group Wagner, Yevgeny Prigozhin, who stated that “there are separate media, bloggers and Telegram channels that openly discredit volunteers”, and called on government officials to consider changing the current law to discourage this discourse.

In November, Russian President Vladimir Putin signed a law equating the status of volunteers with contracted military personnel.