Russia's lower house of parliament, the State Duma, voted on Tuesday to approve an amendment that would punish those found guilty of discrediting "volunteer" groups fighting in Ukraine, extending a law that censors criticism of Russia's armed forces.
The amendment is seen as a move to "protect" fighters working for the private Wagner Group, a mercenary force, which is leading Russia's campaign for the eastern Ukrainian city of Bakhmut.
The bill needs to be approved by the parliament's upper house before passing to President Vladimir Putin for final approval.
Russia's Wagner Group mercenaries, censorship and the Ukraine war
Wagner founder Yevgeny Prigozhin has welcomed the proposals - an expansion of Russia's wartime censorship measures introduced after Moscow invaded Ukraine.
Prigozhin asked parliament in January to ban negative media reports about his men by amending the criminal code, an idea Duma Speaker Vyacheslav Volodin quickly said he backed.
Under Russia's current laws, "discrediting" the army can be punished by up to five years in prison, while spreading knowingly false information about it can attract a 15-year jail sentence.
Russian prosecutors have already opened more than 5,800 cases against people for discrediting the armed forces, the OVD-Info rights group says, while authorities have also used the laws against spreading false information to hand down lengthy jail sentences to long-time Kremlin critics.