March 19th, 2022. Russian journalists fear for their freedom as the government tightens its grip on the national opposition media. Following Russia’s invasion of Ukraine on February 24th, 2022 – which has since resulted in a number of casualties on both sides – many independent and opposition publications have been blocked or forced to flee Russia. This comes as a result of a number of threats by the Kremlin and its supporters, and a recent government law forbidding the “dissemination of disinformation” about the Russian military.
The law went into effect on March 4th, 2022. It prohibits journalists from contradicting the government’s version of events in Ukraine – the version that calls the invasion a “special military operation” designed to fight Ukrainian nationalists and denies that the Russian military is knowingly targeting the Ukrainian civilians.
The law makes the public usage of terminology such as “war” or “invasion” in relation to the conflict, or public speaking against the Russian Military Forces, illegal. According to the Russian publication ТASS, any spreading of public information discrediting the Russian Armed Forces can lead up to severe punishments.
These punishments range from monetary to prison sentences, going up to 15 years of jail time.
But even before the law came into effect, the Russian government started threatening and shutting down many independent and opposition media houses, such as Ekho Moskvy (The Echo of Moscow) and Dozhd (TV Rain), which closed on the 3rd and 4th March respectively.
“With TV Rain, for example, the most important opposition channel in Russia – it’s closed because they received so many threats from the government and from the people who support the government. They received so many threats that most of them left Russia to those countries where they don’t need a visa,” says Kristina*, a Moscow-based media worker. “I talked to a couple of people who used to work for TV Rain. They left the country and they don’t even see any hope in that. Especially now with this new law.”
TV Rain was known as the broadcasting channel that covered topics ranging from politics and business to culture. It was added to the Russian list of “foreign agents” in 2021. They had their last broadcast on March 3rd.
In his article for the Guardian, Denis Kataev, a news anchor for TV Rain said: “At Dozhd (TV Rain) we broadcast the truth about the war in Ukraine for as long as we dared. But for now, media freedom is over.“
Kristina agrees. “I would say that the job of a journalist right now in Russia – it’s destroyed. I hope that people will be able to post something from other countries at least, and I hope they won’t have to be scared for their lives if they post something. But for now, it’s mostly completely destroyed, this job. You can’t speak about this war. You can’t post anything about it!”
A similar statement was made by Katerina Abramova, the head of communications at Meduza, one of the last independent publications reporting on issues concerning Russia. Meduza is based in Riga, Latvia.
“The situation is awful. I mean, the independent media industry (in Russia) is destroyed. It was always difficult to be an independent journalist in Russia. But during wartime and under the war censorship, it is much more dangerous and almost impossible,” she says.
Meduza was founded in 2014. According to Galina Timchenko, its founder, “it aims to fill a market niche that exists due to ‘a long list of forbidden topics which Russian media do not raise for various reasons—due to direct and indirect censorship.'” Their website offers content both in English and Russian.
Meduza was added to the Russian list of “foreign agents” in 2021. Their website is currently blocked in Russia – an issue they are trying to tackle by spreading their content through e-mail newsletters, their own mobile phone app, and Telegram.
According to Abramova, they currently have more than a million subscribers on Telegram – double the amount of what they had before the invasion.
However, Abramova claims that getting through to sources for their reporting became an issue because people are afraid to speak up. Moreover, the workers at the publication are afraid themselves. But they keep on going.
“Of course we’re scared. Everybody’s scared. We are human beings. And our priority is that our staff is safe,” she says. “But people in Russia should know there is a war. And even for ordinary people with ordinary lives – even if you are not interested in politics, you can’t not notice that something is not okay. But the government doesn’t like to talk about it.”
The government-funded federal news channels paint an entirely different picture of the invasion, using altered information to propagandize a reality much different than pictured in the Western media.
“The whole propaganda thing, from Putin, is to make people think that there are Nazis in Ukraine who are trying their best to destroy Russian-speaking people in Ukraine. They’re not saying that Russia invaded Ukraine and started bombing it, but that Russia is trying to prevent those “Nazis” from killing regular people in Ukraine. Which is completely absurd. And they are showing those videos, where bombs are sent to buildings, and saying ‘those are Ukrainian Nazis doing that’,” says Kristina, the Moscow-based media worker.
In response to the government propaganda and the importance of factual reporting, Abramova says: “The situation (with Ukraine) has a huge impact on the Russian economy. And there are dead soldiers. They have families. So, I hope that (Russian) people start noticing it and start discussing the situation. That’s why it’s so important to give them the real picture and information.”
Another independent Russian media outlet still in existence is Mediazona, a publication that focuses on news coverage, especially in the Russian judiciary and penitentiary systems, and law enforcement. They were made a Russian “foreign agent” in 2021.
According to Pyotr*, a Mediazona reporter, they are currently relocating their staff outside of the country as they continue working.
Similar to Meduza, Mediazona does not shy away from disobeying the new law. Their articles still use the terminology that has been prohibited, and their reporting covers many topics that could be considered illegal in their home country.
However, they do not consider themselves an opposition outlet.
“We don’t see ourselves as, you know, political opposition in itself. Journalists have to be reporting everything and everyone’s faults and misdeeds. There are a lot of publications, a lot of interesting and good publications that are covering in a more activist kind of a way. That’s not a bad thing, don’t get me wrong. But we at Mediazona are trying to build a brand on factual reporting,“ says Pyotr. “We’re covering opposition rallies, we’re covering trials of opposition leaders, yet we’re still finding that line between openly supporting the protest and doing the critical reporting.“
It was that critical and truthful reporting that led to the blocking of their channels in Russia on March 6th, making the accessibility to their content much harder. Due to the losses in regular readership, Mediazona reporters fear for the future of the publication.
“I don’t imagine we are read by the majority of Russian people. We have a stable and growing readership that supports… supported us. We had some 9 thousand people who gave us donations for our website, but right now, following the sanctions, which broke card payments, and all of that stuff, we might actually lose a gigantic chunk of that revenue,” says Pyotr.
After being blocked in Russia, Mediazona released an editorial statement on their website listing tips on how to bypass the block and help the outlet.
But it is not only the financial aspect they are worried about.
“We are afraid for our safety. We are afraid for the future of our project and our personal futures. But in some ways, there’s no going back,“ Pyotr says. “The Russian society has transformed so drastically and so momentously in one day, in one week, in one month, that we no longer have the same Russia that we had before.”
Both Meduza and Mediazona created channels through which viewers can support them by donating money.
According to Pyotr and Abramova, both publications will continue their journalistic work despite the dangers it may bring.
“In the end, the main goal is to show the reality right and change the reality by showing it,” concludes Pyotr.
*Names of the sources have been changed for identity protection
The cover photo shows the Meduza team. The picture is the courtesy of Meduza and they gave their permission of its usage for this article.