Independent Media Is Key to Democracy in Russia and Lasting Peace in Europe

Leading up to the full-scale invasion of Ukraine in February 2022, the Putin regime had moved to systematically destroy all independent media inside Russia. Hundreds of journalists were forced to leave the country due to the Kremlin’s pressure and fears for their freedom and physical safety

Yury Krylov 24.12.2022

Leading up to the full-scale invasion of Ukraine in February 2022, the Putin regime had moved to systematically destroy all independent media inside Russia. Hundreds of journalists were forced to leave the country due to the Kremlin’s pressure and fears for their freedom and physical safety.

Dozens of media outlets were forced to relocate to Riga, Vilnius, and Prague, while still working to tell the truth about the war. They set up makeshift studios in rented apartments or coworking spaces. Their reporters were scattered all over the world, in Tbilisi, Istanbul, and Berlin. Even those «lucky» journalists who managed to escape Russia now face real hardship — uncertain status in host countries, lack of housing, inability to access even their own bank accounts due to Western sanctions, challenges getting information to Russian audiences due to Facebook and YouTube restrictions, and psychological trauma.

Today, as a result of the war, hundreds of Russian media professionals find themselves outside of Russia. Most of them are committed to continuing their work, informing and educating Russian audiences, and telling the truth about the war in order to advance positive change in the country. It is in the interest of the transatlantic community to ensure their success.

Why Vladimir Putin destroyed journalism in Russia

For over two decades, Putin has ruled over Russia, gradually taking away the rights and freedoms of its citizens, most notably freedom of speech and the freedom to disseminate information. Like any KGB operative, the Russian president is «allergic» to a free and independent press.

After the collapse of the Soviet Union and the declaration of freedom of speech in Russia, the demand for honest journalism in the country was enormous. Putin’s predecessor, Boris Yeltsin, had to contend with independent media, even as the 1990s were plagued by the assassinations of prominent journalists — a trend that continued in the 2000s. Vladimir Putin, however, was much less tolerant. Critical media coverage of the Second Chechen War, the 2003 hostage-taking at the Moscow Theater Center, the 2004 terrorist attack on the school in Beslan, and the 2008 war with Georgia only confirmed Putin’s belief that a free and independent media is an existential threat to his regime and to him personally.

Early in his rule, Putin’s crony oligarchs took over many independent media outlets, notably the nationwide TV networks NTV and Channel One, marginalizing those that remained in opposition. After two decades, Putin has managed to establish control over virtually the entire media system in Russia. Under the pretext of increasing information security, the Russian president has also turned the media from an emerging democratic institution and a check on political power into a powerful instrument of state propaganda.

For some time, while the Putin regime still attempted to present a democratic façade to the West, independent media were allowed to operate in Russia, albeit in a very small niche. However, following the 2011-2012 mass protests and especially after the 2014 Crimea annexation, this niche began to narrow.

In a 2021 interview with Meduza, an independent media outlet, Russian journalist Ilya Azar discussed the importance of independent journalism in Russia, saying: «We, journalists, are the last line of defense in the war of the [Russian] state against its people. And I say this not for the sake of drama — it is, alas, the truth. <…> The more restrictions the state imposes on us, the more important and necessary it is for all of us to remain in the profession, to continue to write and take photographs. In my opinion, there is nothing more important for humanity than journalism <…> Journalists, although it happens much less often than we would like, do save people. They protect the country by telling stories about torture, corruption, lies, and persecution. And we will definitely continue to do so!»

At the time, Azar had not yet known how much things would change only a few months later. Within days of Russia’s invasion of Ukraine on February 24, several independent media outlets that were actively covering the war were blocked by Roskomnadzor, Russia’s state media watchdog, for allegedly disseminating «untrustworthy» information. Even the word «war» was deemed «false» by the regulator; Russian media can only refer to the war as a «special military operation.» Azar summarized the effect of these developments for the Russian independent media in a post on his Facebook page: «In just one week, an entire profession, my profession, was destroyed in Russia.» This seemed like the final nail in the coffin of Russian journalism, but the destruction of the free media space in Russia had been a long and painful process.

The gradual closing of the free media space

Early in his first term as president, Vladimir Putin relied on television to control public opinion. However, censorship was soon imposed on virtually all politically significant media — federal TV channels, mainstream newspapers, and most popular online media — despite the fact that Article 29 of the Russian Constitution guarantees every citizen’s right to freedom of thought and speech, as well as the right to freely seek, receive, transmit, produce, and disseminate information by any legal means.

In March 2008, Vladimir Pozner, a well-known TV anchor at Channel One, a state-owned television network, declared that there is no freedom of speech in Russia. In 2011, Pozner officially acknowledged the existence of «stop lists» — lists of people who are deemed «undesirable» by the authorities and therefore denied access to mainstream media — on Russian television for the first time. Since 2010, opposition politicians such as Boris Nemtsov, Garry Kasparov, Mikhail Kasyanov, Eduard Limonov, Alexei Navalny, and other political figures have been denied access to federal television channels.

«In 2012, amendments were made to the law ‘On Protecting Children from Information Harmful to Their Health and Development’ to create formal conditions for blocking online media and other outlets. While these changes were supposedly introduced to protect children, activists and experts raised concerns that they could be used to limit freedom of speech. Other laws that restrict political freedoms were also passed, such as increasing fines for participating in unauthorized rallies and the law on ‘foreign agents.’

The «Lugovoi Law,» which was introduced at the end of 2013, brought about the most radical changes. It allowed for the extrajudicial blocking of media materials on the grounds of «extremism,» specifically for publishing «information containing calls for mass civil disorder, extremist activity, participation in mass (public) events held in violation of the established order…» This law started as an attempt to «protect children,» but gradually became a tool for restricting freedoms.

In 2014, among the first outlets blocked under the “Lugovoi Law” were the independent media projects Ezhednevny Journal, Kasparov.ru, and Grani.ru, as well as the blog of opposition politician Alexei Navalny and its 28 mirrors.

In April of that year, Russian President Vladimir Putin declared the Internet to be a «dangerous» tool for Russian society and advocated for government control over its usage. He argued that the Internet was initially developed as a «special project of the CIA» and continues to be manipulated by the U.S. To strengthen the country’s information security, Russian authorities demanded that major international and national internet companies operating in the country host their servers on Russian soil, asserting that «Americans control the information flows» passing through them. The engagement of the Russian government with the Internet is indicative of its increasing influence in the country. By 2014, the audience size of online media outlets in Russia had become equal to that of traditional media outlets, and the level of trust in online sources often surpassed that of traditional media. Additionally, around this time, opposition politicians like Alexei Navalny gained immense popularity through online investigations into corruption. Furthermore, the opposition protests of the early 2010s were coordinated largely through blogs and social media platforms.

2017 marked a serious milestone in the “purging” of Russia’s media system with the passing of the law that allowed to recognize media as foreign agents. The law was purported to be Russia’s response to the U.S. Department of Justice’s decision to add RT America, a state-funded propaganda TV channel, to the list of foreign agents under the Foreign Agents Registration Act. For four years, the law on media as foreign agents had not been widely applied in Russia, but in spring 2021, a full-fledged campaign against independent media was launched. Possible triggers for this development range from the Russian government’s fear of mass protests by the Belarusian scenario (the 2020 protests that almost led to the change of Lukashenko regime were widely covered in the local media) to preparations for the attack on Ukraine.

By 2021, Russia’s “Lugovoi Law” had become the main legislative instrument of censorship. For alleged “calls for mass civil disorder and extremist activities” several websites supported by Putin’s critic Mikhail Khodorkovsky were blocked (e.g. Open Media, Open Russia’s Human Rights Defense, MBKh Media), as well as dozens of websites related to the activities of Alexei Navalny (e.g. the YouTube channels of his associates Lyubov Sobol, Georgy Alburov, Leonid Volkov, and Vladimir Milov; the politicians’ own channel Navalny LIVE; navalny.com was blocked even earlier, in 2018).

2021 was a harbinger of the catastrophe that came in 2022: numerous independent news organizations were declared “foreign agents,” reporters and editors were systematically raided by security forces, some media projects were shut down, dozens of journalists left the country for fear of persecution. Below is an incomplete timeline.

On April 14, 2021, the apartments of journalists from the student magazine DOXA were searched. On April 23, 2021, Meduza was declared a foreign agent. On May 14, 2021, VTimes was declared a foreign agent and subsequently shut down. On July 15, 2021, the leading investigative media outlet Proekt was declared an «undesirable organization.» Its editor-in-chief, Roman Badanin, and other members of the editorial board were declared foreign agents, and many were forced to leave the country. On July 23, 2021, The Insider was declared a foreign agent. On August 20, 2021, the independent television channel Dozhd and the investigative project Important Stories, along with its editor-in-chief Roman Anin and other editorial staff, were declared foreign agents. On September 29, 2021, Mediazona and its editor Sergei Smirnov and founder Pyotr Verzilov were declared foreign agents. On October 8, 2021, the media outlets Kavkazsky Uzel and Bellingcat, as well as media lawyer Galina Arapova, were declared foreign agents. On October 15, 2021, Republic and Rosbalt received the same status. Finally, on December 30, 2021, publicist Viktor Shenderovich and the editor-in-chief of the independent media project Holod, Taisiya Bekbulatova, were declared foreign agents.

The Purge

By the time Russia invaded Ukraine, the government had already developed and implemented various measures to control the media. These measures made it possible to quickly suppress non-state sources of social and political information. The Kremlin has been trying to impose full censorship since the beginning of the war in Ukraine. On February 24, the day of the invasion, the Russian government agency Roskomnadzor warned journalists to use only official sources of information. This decision was made because of the increased number of «leaks and fakes» in both traditional media and on social media platforms. From that day on, any information that had not been confirmed by an «official» government source was considered unreliable, and media outlets that published it were subject to banning.

On March 5, 2022, President Putin signed a law stating that «disseminating knowingly false information of public significance» about the «special military operation» in Ukraine could be punished by up to 15 years in prison. After this law went into effect, many independent Russian media outlets were forced to suspend their work or remove all materials related to the war in Ukraine. Both Russian-language and foreign media, as well as social media platforms, were affected by these laws. There was also an increase in self-censorship, as people started to avoid making anti-war posts for fear of administrative and criminal prosecution.

On the sixth day of the war, at the request of the Prosecutor General’s Office, access to Dozhd’s website was blocked in Russia on the grounds of spreading «false information» about the nature of Russia’s military operation in Ukraine, the way combat operations were conducted, Russian army losses, shelling of Ukrainian cities, civilian casualties, and «calls to organize mass events» in Russia. On March 3, Natalia Sindeyeva, the general director and owner of Dozhd, announced that the channel would temporarily suspend operations.

«It was obvious that the media that covered the war didn’t have much time. It’s a short race. How much can we publish before we get whacked?» notes Kirill Martynov, the political editor at Novaya Gazeta and now editor-in-chief of its spinoff, Novaya Gazeta Europe. Novaya Gazeta managed to operate for just over a month after the war had begun, and then suspended its work. Its license was revoked in September 2022.

The fate of Echo of Moscow, a popular radio station whose editorial policy was largely viewed as independent despite its affiliation with the state-controlled Gazprom Media, was even more dramatic. After 30 years on the air, it was shut down overnight on March 1, 2022 for its coverage of the Ukraine war. It was first blocked by Roskomnadzor and then shut down by Gazprom Media. The frequency of Echo of Moscow was then passed on to the state-owned Sputnik radio station.

Since the beginning of the «special military operation,» Russian authorities have methodically blocked dozens of independent media outlets, including Dozhd, Meduza, the BBC Russian Service, Radio Liberty and all its regional projects, Deutsche Welle, Voice of America, Current Time, TV-2, Taiga.info, The New Times, DOXA, The Village, Mediazona, 7×7, Pskov Gubernia, Republic, and many others.

In addition to being unable to provide accurate information about the war in Ukraine to millions of Russians, independent media faced another problem: loss of income. Following the imposition of sanctions on Russia, many Western and later Russian advertisers stopped doing business with independent media outlets (most Russian businesses refrain from cooperating with media recognized as «undesirable organizations» or «foreign agents»). Visa and MasterCard’s suspension of operations in Russia led to millions of Russian bank cards no longer working, resulting in a significant drop in crowdfunding and paid subscriptions that independent media had relied on. YouTube’s cancellation of all forms of monetization (advertising, sponsorship, etc.) for the Russian segment of the platform was an additional blow. While sponsorship integration remains, it has also been declining due to economic reasons.

The remaining independent media outlets have little chance of surviving under such conditions. Taiga.info, a Siberia-based independent media outlet, has been blocked by Russian authorities since March 1. As a result, the project lost almost all of its advertisers, and its traffic dropped almost fivefold. Advertising in The Bell, an independent business media outlet, reportedly dropped by 80-90% following Western sanctions. Mediazona, which collected more than 4 million rubles (about $55,000) per month in donations at the beginning of 2022, lost 80% of that income. These are just two examples of hundreds of similar stories.

Russian authorities also made sure that foreign media outlets stopped working in the country. Some, such as The New York Times, decided to pull their staff out of Moscow, even though their bureau had operated in Russia for over a century, including during the Russian revolution and World War II. Leading news agencies like Reuters and Bloomberg also left Moscow (Bloomberg relocated its entire Moscow office to Dubai). TV networks like CNN, CBS, ABC, and the CBC also suspended their work. Western publishers revoked the licenses of their lifestyle magazines in Russia, including Esquire, Vogue, GQ, Glamour, AD, Tatler, Cosmopolitan, Men’s Health, Harper’s Bazaar, and National Geographic.

According to RoskomSvoboda, an independent Russian NGO that supports open self-regulatory networks and the protection of digital rights, more than 9,000 websites were blocked in the country. In Freedom House’s Freedom on the Net 2022 survey, Russia’s score for internet freedom dropped by 7 points compared to the previous year, ranking it 65th out of 70 countries — the largest decline among surveyed countries.

Life in exile

Between 150,000 and 1.5 million people have left Russia since February 24, according to various estimates. If the lower figures are correct, this is the largest wave of emigration in decades. Many of those who have left are journalists and media professionals. Unlike the hundreds of thousands of Russians who fled out of fear of mobilization, closed borders, economic collapse, or for moral reasons, media workers left under very real and tangible threats of repression, arrest, and even physical assault. Many had to «evacuate» in a matter of hours.

Riga became one of the main centers for journalism emigration. Following Meduza, which settled in the Latvian capital in 2014, Riga has provided a home for the editorial teams of Dozhd, the Moscow branch of Deutsche Welle, and the newspaper Novaya Gazeta Europe — a total of around 60 exiled Russian journalists. The first issue published by former Novaya Gazeta journalists came out in two languages — Latvian and Russian — and many newspapers reprinted their articles in solidarity.

Despite relocating, Russian media in exile continue to face physical surveillance and intimidation by Russian security services. In March 2022, the Washington Post reported that Lithuanian intelligence agencies had noticed an increase in the number of Russian agents in Vilnius. Lithuanian authorities warned Russian media workers arriving in the country about potential retaliation and even infiltration into their ranks. Vitis Yurkonis, project manager at Freedom House and the lead of its Vilnius office, responded to the threats from Russia by advising: «I don’t think journalists [in exile] should focus on any single country [when they relocate].»

Host countries’ natural apprehension of the influx of Russian exiles is another problem. Strong anti-Russian sentiment, fueled by decades of Russian aggression and exacerbated by the war in Ukraine, creates challenges for acquiring legal status in a new country. The risk that a host country might expel exiled activists on a whim adds to the insecurity and psychological turmoil they are already enduring.

The psychological and emotional health of exiled journalists is another concern. Some had to hastily learn new professions due to income shortages. Others are increasingly realizing that their situation might last for a long time and that they not only need to survive, but also to work out a new identity and develop strategies for their journalism, now that the shock of relocation has subsided.

Another serious challenge is financial solvency. On average, exiled independent media continue to struggle, and the non-profit model has become the most in demand, with requests for grants from institutional donors increasing significantly. Mediazona has managed to partially rebuild its donation system. According to its editor, Sergei Smirnov, «the example of Belarus helped a lot in relocation. Our main problem is that the primary source of funding was donations. We are rebuilding [the donation collection], but I’m not sure we will get back to the previous level.» At the same time, the outlet has managed to preserve its staff and has relocated 30 people abroad — mostly to Lithuania and Georgia, but also Kazakhstan, the Czech Republic, Israel, and the United States.

In March, Germany’s Schöpflin Foundation and Rudolf Augstein Foundation, along with Reporters Without Borders, established the JX Fund to help independent journalists in exile. «No journalist is safe from the threat of serious charges under vaguely worded draconian laws that were often adopted in haste. <…> Beyond censorship — which has forced many media outlets to close and has impoverished the few remaining independent journalists, forcing them to change professions or go abroad — the regional media will be among the first victims of this economic crisis,» Reporters Without Borders noted in a statement about the media environment in Russia.

The organization also works with Russian-language media that have been blocked in Russia and with individual journalists whose platforms have become inaccessible. They create mirror websites to provide access to blocked information and help circumvent blockades. Demand for this service is high. «We… encourage all independent media to contact us if they need a similar service. We have done the same for the Russian-language version of the German Deutsche Welle. It is important to support all initiatives, such as the Radio for Peace International project, which broadcasts on shortwave in Russia. We are working with them now. A lot of what we do now in working with journalists in Russia is not publicized for security reasons,» Pauline Ades-Mevel, editor-in-chief of Reporters Without Borders, told Voice of America.

Technology Helps

The newly exiled Russian media should not be equated to the “voices” of the Cold War era or the source of counterpropaganda to the Kremlin’s information war. Today’s media are much louder; new technologies and social media opportunities make it difficult to fully silence their work.

Millions of Russians are actively seeking out independent, accurate information about the war. They are still looking for names and faces that they know and trust. These dynamics are reflected in the rapid audience growth on independent media’s social media accounts that are still available to Russians. From February to June 2022, the number of subscribers of 16 Russian independent media on Telegram increased by 219%. Meduza showed a growth of 153%, increasing its audience to 1.3 million across its three accounts, and Mediazona saw a growth of 152%, reaching 202,000 subscribers. The audience of the 12 independent news channels on YouTube grew by 43% on average in the early months of the war, partly because many independent journalists, having lost their editorial offices, made this video service their main platform. This was especially true for the reporters of Echo of Moscow and Dozhd. The YouTube channel of The Insider grew by 109%, from 62,500 subscribers in February to 131,000 in June. Independent bloggers also saw gains: on average, 16 bloggers increased the number of their subscribers by 15%. Some, like Yekaterina Gordeyeva, saw an almost threefold growth — from 430,000 subscribers in February to 1,190,000 in June.

Since the Kremlin effectively banned independent journalism, the use of virtual private networks (VPNs) and free apps to bypass censorship has surged. In May 2022, the Washington Post reported, citing Apptopia’s data, that the top ten VPN apps in Russia saw a surge from 15,000 downloads per day before the invasion to a March peak of 475,000 per day.

The Internet Protection Society, a digital rights group associated with jailed Russian opposition leader Alexei Navalny, launched its own VPN service and reached its limit of 300,000 users within 10 days, according to executive director Mikhail Klimarev. Based on internal surveys, he estimates that the number of VPN users in Russia has risen to roughly 30% of the 100 million Internet users in Russia. To combat Putin, «Ukraine needs Javelin and Russians need the internet,» Klimarev said.

VPN use not only helps millions of Russians access accurate information on the actual state of the war and the extent of Russian military losses, but also limits the Russian government’s surveillance of activists.

“Offshore Journalism”

In the fall of 2021, lawyer Ilya Novikov (designated as a «foreign agent» in Russia in November 2022 and added to the wanted list) may have been the first to use a term that now describes the existing phenomenon — «offshore journalism.» He referred to Russian editorial teams that had been forced to flee Russia. By mid-2022, virtually all independent Russian journalism had become «offshore.»

One question that often arises given its current «offshore,» or exiled, status is whether Russian independent journalism is worth it. The investigative project Proekt, whose work focuses on corruption and crime in Russia’s top power echelons, offers a potential answer to that question. As its editor-in-chief Roman Badanin notes, «some people wonder whether independent journalism means anything to average Russians. Do they need reliable information? And does truthful journalism have an impact? The answer is very simple: if Russian journalism does not impact anything, then why do the Russian authorities suppress it so harshly? All independent journalists have become enemies of the state now. The Kremlin is truly afraid of journalists,» says Badanin, who was forced to leave Russia in 2021 after Proekt had been declared an «undesirable» organization.

Even under harsh conditions, Russian journalists in exile have continued to create new media projects. In 2021 alone, Proekt published several groundbreaking investigations about high-ranking officials and businessmen, including those in Putin’s inner circle: businessmen Arkady Rotenberg and Yuri Kovalchuk, Chechen leader Ramzan Kadyrov, Interior Minister Vladimir Kolokoltsev, and head of Russia’s National Guard Viktor Zolotov. In 2022, Proekt has published investigations about the people who control the Ukrainian territories seized by the Russian army, a guide to hundreds of Russian occupants and collaborators, a story about the people taking over Western companies that had left Russia, a story about Federal Security Service (FSB) officers who manufactured a treason case against journalist Ivan Safronov, and many others.

Former Meduza publisher and media manager Ilya Krasilshchik has created Helpdesk Media, a media outlet that operates mainly on social media platforms Instagram and Telegram. Former editor-in-chief of Russian Esquire, Philip Bakhtin, who has been living in Estonia for several years, has launched the Repost project. Another independent media outlet, Verstka, was founded by Russian journalist Lola Tagaeva.

This is just a few examples of how Russian ‘offshore journalism’ can be effective even in exile. Western policymakers, experts, and journalists frequently ask FRF as to what can be done to help them.

Ksenia Luchenko, a columnist for the independent outlet Republic, highlights three main problems facing Russian media in exile that require urgent solutions. The first is limited access to the audience. Because of Roskomnadzor’s blocking of independent information, media must use VPNs, Telegram, newsletters, and other auxiliary tools to deliver their content, while the audience must actively seek out quality information. The second problem is that journalists, who used to work on the ground, must now adapt their methods of work in reduced circumstances. It is becoming more difficult to report on Russia from a distance, and sources are more wary of requests from ‘foreign agents’ and ‘undesirable organizations.’ Meanwhile, the risks for journalists who remain in Russia and are willing to collaborate with exiled outlets continue to increase. The third problem is the loss of income and the need to operate under extremely difficult conditions. Therefore, assistance with technological, financial, and security tools could be vital for the survival of independent media.»

It is unlikely that exiled Russian journalists will be able to return home in the coming months or possibly years. Many of them may find better opportunities in industries such as marketing and entertainment, while working from various locations around the world. However, if this critical ecosystem — which can still reach the Russian audience, earn the trust and respect of its readers and viewers, and thus influence their opinions even from abroad — is allowed to dissipate, we will permanently lose a crucial tool for guiding Russians towards peace and democracy.

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