Russia cracks down on independent media during Ukraine invasion

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By Aleksandar Brezar
A man watches Russian President Vladimir Putin on TV screens in an electronic hypermarket in Moscow,, 2014
A man watches Russian President Vladimir Putin on TV screens in an electronic hypermarket in Moscow,, 2014   -  Copyright  AP Photo/Alexander Zemlianichenko

Ever since Russian President Vladimir Putin launched the invasion of Ukraine last week, Russian media outlets have been banned from calling it what it is – a war.

Instead, they have to refer to the indiscriminate attacks and bombing of Ukrainian cities as “a special operation”, the Kremlin insists.

Authorities have not shied away from penalising those who do not adhere to this directive by broadcasting or publishing content stating otherwise or reporting the truth.

Ekho Moskvy, one of Russia’s oldest independent radio stations, was closed permanently, its board of directors announced on Thursday morning.

By the afternoon the same day, Dozhd — the country’s most popular independent channel — also announced its closure, although they insist it is a temporary suspension.

On Friday morning, Meduza, a leading international investigative outlet, and Radio Svoboda, Radio Free Europe's Russian branch, was also outlawed by the country’s media regulator, Roskomnadzor.

“Censorship has been officially introduced in Russia,” Meduza editorial predicted on Wednesday.

“Perhaps in a few days, there will be no functioning independent media in the country.”

The Friday decision also cut access to the Russian-language editions of the BBC and DeutscheWelle, with the latter already being banned in Russia since last month and its reporters forced to stop working.

In concert, the Duma passed a bill introducing sentences of up to 15 years in prison for intentionally spreading what they deem as “fake” information about military action.

Using terms like “invasion,” “attack,” or “act of war” were explicitly mentioned as unacceptable by the authorities.

Internet glitch as the first sign of censorship

The trouble for independent outlets in Russia started on 26 February – the third day of the invasion – when users of Facebook and Twitter in the country reported that access to both was restricted.

The two social media platforms would not load properly, making the platforms unusable, and raising concern that a censorship campaign might be underway.

On the same day, Roskomnadzor sent a letter to ten outlets including Ekho Moskvy, Dozhd and Meduza, but also the likes of Novaya Gazeta, warning them that access to their content would be “restricted” if they did not remove what it considered to be “false information”.

The Russian-language BBC service and the Deutsche Welle website were among the ten.

The letter also demanded that any content about the war in Ukraine not in line with the country’s new rules must be removed.

AP Photo/Serhii Nuzhnenko
An armed man stands by the remains of a Russian military vehicle in Bucha, close to the capital KyivAP Photo/Serhii Nuzhnenko

The content deemed problematic also included coverage of domestic protests and interviews and op-eds by anti-war activists and critics of Putin.

By Monday, two outlets from the list — US Congress-funded Krym.Realii and Current Time TV, a project affiliated with Radio Free Europe or RFE — had their access blocked.

RFE refused to collaborate and delete the information on the Kremlin’s invasion, including reports on Russian soldiers captured or killed in Ukraine, the outlet’s president Jamie Fly said.

“We will not comply,” Fly stated on Twitter.

Ekho Moskvy was taken off the airwaves on Tuesday after the State Prosecutor’s Office accused it of “calls for extremist activity, violence” and spreading “deliberately false information”.

The Prosecutor’s Office launched the same accusations against Dozhd, Russia’s top independent channel, demanding the “immediate shutdown” of the two. Roskomnadzor — which effectively serves as Kremlin’s main domestic censor — complied.

Editor-in-chief of Ekho Moskvy Alexei Venediktov rejected the accusations, saying they “are not supported by any examples, any evidence, [and] are unfounded and offensive to journalists and citizens of Russia."

Dozhd issued a statement rejecting the accusations against the TV channel, saying it “strictly follows Russian laws in its coverage”.

Dozhd’s editor-in-chief Tikhon Dzyadko left Russia the next day, amid fears for his safety — a decision shared by some of the editorial staff.

“After the illegal blockage of Dozhd's site, Dozhd accounts on several social networks, as well as threats addressed to some of our employees, it became obvious that the personal safety of some of us is now under threat,” Dzyadko explained in a post on Telegram.

AP Photo/Alexander Zemlianichenko
Colleagues gather in a memorial room in the offices of the Novaya Gazeta to commemorate investigative reporter Anna Politkovskaya in Moscow in 2021AP Photo/Alexander Zemlianichenko

The Nobel Peace Prize-winning editor of Russian newspaper Novaya Gazeta, Dmitry Muratov, was furious at the news of Echo Moskvy’s shutting down, telling the European Parliament’s subcommittee on human rights on Thursday that it was the doing of “three clerks”.

“At this moment any statement against the war is treated as a crime against the state,” Muratov, whose paper was openly against the war, told the gathered MEPs.

Seven of Novaya Gazeta's journalists have been killed since 2000 because of their investigative work.

The assassination of Anna Politkovskaya in October 2006 — after previously being kidnapped and subjected to a mock execution by the Russian military in Chechnya in 2001 and poisoned on a domestic flight in 2004 — was heavily linked to the Kremlin due to her critical investigative work on crimes committed during the Second Chechen War.

Journalists fear they will fare the worst

Censorship in Russia is prohibited by the constitution. But the legislative acts around it, like the country’s 2012 "foreign agent" law, and a broad mandate given to Roskomnadzor allow the Kremlin to exercise pressure on the entire media scene.

An October 2020 addition to the law forces outlets deemed to fall under the category of “foreign agents” — which includes those receiving any funding from abroad — to precede all of their content with a statement saying that “this material” was distributed by a foreign mass media or a Russian legal entity “performing the functions of a foreign agent”. The statement is in all-caps has to be featured in every article.

In addition to a number of restrictions, the label also cuts access to advertising revenue from any companies in Russia fearing backlash for affiliating with someone perceived as working for the enemy.

The list includes RFE, Meduza, and Dozhd.

In the meantime, lesser-known, regional outlets have rebelled against the Kremlin’s instruction. VK-media, a publishing group from the Ural federal district, had four of its newspapers published in the northern cities of the Sverdlovsk region openly oppose the war.

“This madness must be stopped!”, the four outlets stated across their Wednesday front pages.

AP Photo/Dmitri Lovetsky
A detained demonstrator shows a sign 'No War!' from a police bus in St. PetersburgAP Photo/Dmitri Lovetsky

Adding to the fears are the widespread rumours that Putin is about to announce martial law, which would grant him what is essentially unchecked power in the country. A decision made on Thursday to forcefully enlist people arrested for protesting the war to go and fight in Ukraine made some flee their homeland.

“It’s just a matter of days now before they finally shut us down and very likely, even worse,” an employee at one of the outlets still operating on Thursday told Euronews under the condition of anonymity.

When asked if by “worse” they meant arrests and imprisonment, they replied with “Yes”.

“Those who are in Russia right now are at great risk, and the risks range from simply being hunted down and frightened or hit or sprayed with paint or excrement, to actual imprisonment under several articles of the law at once,” said Aleksandr Plushev, Russian journalist and editor at Ekho Moskvy, who has worked at the station since 1994.

By removing the few remaining yet authoritative voices from the public sphere, Putin is attempting to consolidate the nation around the narrative of protecting the Kremlin-backed separatist republics of Donetsk and Luhansk in the eastern Ukrainian region of Donbas.

“Russian television, which is watched and trusted by about half the Russian population, reports that this is a special operation to protect the DPR and LPR and an operation to denazify Ukraine, whatever that means.”

“People are told that everything spread by the Western press and the Ukrainian side is a fake,” Plushev said, and that is now being extended to the independent media in Russia.

“And if he considers any of us an influential media source, he will come after us.”

Additional sources • AP