Truth is the first victim of war. Russia’s invasion of Ukraine is no different. Russia’s communication’s regulator, Roskomnadzor’s decisions to block content and the recent crackdown on independent media have made life for journalists a lot harder. 

The Russian government passed new laws that prohibit using the word “war” to describe the Russian invasion of Ukraine. Media trying to cover the invasion can therefore be accused of spreading fake news. Journalists risk being labeled as traitors and landing 15 years in prison. 

Recent weeks saw the shutdown of independent Russian channels like DozhdTV or Echo of Moscow, and a departure of main international media corporations like Deutsche Welle and BBC News, to name a few. 

Russian independent media are not new to pressure. Over the past year, many have been classified as “foreign agents”, a label that damages their commercial prospects and puts journalists at risk. But recent developments are a whole new level. The question arises, can Russian media survive the current Kremlin crackdown, and if yes, how? 

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What is the current situation? 

While foreign media closed their offices, with their staff leaving the country, Russian journalists had to think of other ways to keep their media going. The responses to the crackdown differed. 

Dozhd TV is thinking of moving to a different platform after shutting down, but there is no solid plan yet. Echo of Moscow shut down, with the board of members firing its editor-in-chief Alexei Venediktov. Russia-propagandist radio Sputnik is now taking over Echo’s radio frequencies. Meduza, a heavyweight on the Russian independent media scene, is still operating out of Latvia. 

Novaya Gazeta is probably the only independent media that still stays afloat and is still based in Russia, but this is mainly due to self-imposed censorship.

How are Russian independent media trying to survive? 

The cases of Meduza and Novaya Gazeta show the different ends of how media can try to survive in current conditions. Here are some of the measures Russian media are contemplating: 

1. Diversifying platforms. 

With situations changing constantly, there must be multiple ways in which media can reach their audiences. As Meduza’s CEO Galina Timchenko stated during the online event organized by IPI, Pressclub Concordia and fjum, Meduza made sure that they will be present on every possible platform and will use every channel of information to reach their audience, Novaya Gazeta also tried to develop its content on different platforms. Here are some of them that might help Russian independent media to reach their audiences. 

  • Telegram—a private messenger, owned by Russian Pavel Durov. With possible blocking of Facebook, Instagram, and Twitter, it is good to have some channels that will be available to your audience. However, there are some reservations among Russian journalists about the messenger, as Kirill Martynov, deputy editor of Novaya Gazeta stated, Telegram remains a useful channel to spread information, but one cannot be certain of its founder’s intentions: “should strongly support Telegram? I don’t know. I don’t know what Durov really thinks about Russian authorities and what obligations he has for them already”. 

These unidentifiable intentions of Telegram’s team give journalists reasons to worry that Telegram has secretly negotiated with the Russian government. While Durov might not do anything malicious, just having a risk of the Russian authorities monitoring this network is too grand for independent media. 

  • YouTube is one of the platforms that might still be untouchable. Since Youtube’s Russian audience is very vast and apolitical, journalists hope authorities might not want to deal with the outrage. However, recent Western sanctions effectively demonetized Russian YouTube channels, raising the question of where income will come from going forward.
  • Email newsletters seem to be the safest way to reach audiences. Signing up for a newsletter is not (yet) considered to be a dissemination of information, therefore it does not fall under current restrictions. Moreover, it seems to show positive results among readers. As Timchenko states, an increasing number of people sign up for Meduza’s newsletter every day. 

2. Promotion of alternative ways of accessing content

Timchenko said that Meduza was prepared for all the worst scenarios possible. One of them was the media blockage in Russia. Therefore, before the ban, Meduza started to promote VPN services among its audience.

This strategy succeeded as despite blocking, Meduza was able to still have 500,000 unique users per day on their website. “We started a campaign promoting VPN, promoting downloading application, promoting our other platforms. We succeeded. So now we have one of the biggest audiences in Russia,” Timchenko stated. 

Novaya Gazeta has a different approach, as with digital copy it publishes physical one. As Martynov pointed out print can serve as an alternative way to survive in times of digital censorship. 

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3. Trying to stay independent within the law.

The destructive nature of recent media laws can be hardly exaggerated. However, there might be a possibility to survive. It is extremely difficult to strike a balance between acting in accordance with the new legislation and objective reporting. Yet Novaya Gazeta is giving it a try. One of the ways to do it is to cover the implications and consequences of war but not the war itself. 

As Martynov stated: “We really can’t write about war itself, but we still can cover what happens in Russia, what happens with humanitarian and social crises.” However, what the Russian government showed through the years, is absolute disregard for the legal procedures or for the specifics of their own legislation. Even if you try to work within the draconian laws, your media can still be blocked and journalists prosecuted as long as there is a political will to silence independent voices.   

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4. Moving operations in exile 

It is common for the independent media to move operations to other countries to bypass the pressure of authoritative laws. China’s and most recently Belarusian independent media are operating in exile, covering the banned topics from safer territories.

Many Russian liberal bloggers and journalists, including Yury Dud, temporarily moved to different countries before or at the start of the war in Ukraine. Journalists from Riga-based Meduza also work from various locations. 

However, there are still a couple of problems with this option. The first one is legal and financial complications. As most Russian bank cards are blocked in Europe, journalists are left with no money. Getting visas is another process that takes time that Russian journalists under prosecution cannot afford to have.

The second complication is related to the possibility of covering Russian affairs fairly without being physically there. Alexey Pivavavrov, a famous journalist, with a popular Youtube channel “Redaktsiya” does not consider moving his channel’s operations out of Russia. “Right now, I think that we did not exhaust all the opportunities of working in Russia,” he claimed. 

One way to address this issue is to have some part of the team in Russia. Meduza has journalists and contributors in Russia, however, their safety comes into question. As Timchenko maintained, Russian authorities claimed to be organizing blacklists of journalists who at different times worked for ‘foreign agents’. This, according to Timchenko, puts Meduza’s journalists in danger. 

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While these are the ways in which Russian media can still work, there is no guarantee that they will be available in the future. The most pessimistic scenario is a digital iron curtain that will completely block the free flow of information in Russia.

Just on March, 11th Russian media reported that Roskomnadzor was asked to review restrictions on Instagram and made the decision to block it. There are also rumors that YouTube might be next. Head of the Safe Internet League Yekaterina Mezulina claimed that Youtube is spreading fake information about Russia and is dangerous for children.

Russian independent journalists are in constant danger, as they are already considered to be enemies of the state and potentially can go to prison. Blocks and closure of main independent media outlets show that the legality does not matter for authorities. If they want to close media outlets or silence journalists, they will probably do it.

However, a decisive attitude from some representatives of Russian independent media, which is best reflected in the words of Timchenko: “we will never surrender” gives hope that they will be still able to serve the Russian audience that is in desperate need of truth.