Days into Russia’s all-out invasion of Ukraine on 24 February, Russian authorities started blocking media outlets to suppress independent coverage of the war.
Press freedom in Russia is extremely limited today – a website or a social media platform can be blocked in a matter of hours only for using the word “war” instead of the official euphemism “special military operation”. This environment has forced independent Russian media outlets to find alternative ways of distributing content to their audiences, preferably ways that are less likely to get blocked.
Here are five ways independent Russian news publications bypass censorship today.
One of the most widespread ways to circumvent censorship are mirrors, site replicas that have different URL addresses than the original website but host identical content. Links to mirrors can be found in most Telegram channels of Russian independent media outlets and usually follow the phrase “read without VPN [virtual private network]”.
As Russian state communications regulator Roskomnadzor’s hunt for undesirable content intensified with the start of the war, mirrors even started making headlines. The most well-known are most likely those created by the independent Saint Petersburg paper Bumaga, both for their wordplay (sebeanus or “itsanus”, nasvsehtoshnit or “makeseverybodysick” – so the news headlines would often go something along the lines of: “Roskomnadzor blocked [insert name of Bumaga’s mirror]”), and for the number of mirrors (nearly fourty!) that Roskomnadzor decided to block.
Bumaga’s team started looking at mirrors as soon as they got blocked, the paper’s technical director Nikita Granko says. Their first mirror was active for about two weeks, while lately they had to create mirrors nearly every day, he notes.
Bumaga’s “battle of mirrors” will however soon come to a close. Maria Rzaeva, Bumaga’s commercial director, says they have recently decided to ask its audience to use a VPN service, optionally Bumaga’s own VPN service, if they wanted to keep following content on the paper’s website.
Newsletters cannot be blocked without restricting access to the entire mail service used by the newsletter, says Stanislav Shakirov, technology director at the Russian digital rights group Roskomsvoboda and the founder of the tech development organisation Privacy Accelerator. If a newsletter with Gmail’s IP (internet protocol) address gets blocked, no Gmail users would not be able to get emails anymore.
The number of e-mail services around the world is also much smaller compared to the number of websites. That means that if the authorities wanted to block newsletters as fast as they block websites, Russians would soon have no e-mail platform left.
This was one of the main reasons why the Russian student magazine DOXA in the days after the war decided to launch the Anti-War Newsletter, a news roundup on the war, says Armen Aramyan, DOXA’s editor and the founder of the newsletter. “What can be left if they block emails?” he wonders.
He notes that most of the readers of the newsletter subscribed in the first week after its launch and that they remain a very loyal audience.
Blocking podcasts is similar to blocking newsletters, Roskomsvoboda’s Shakirov says. If you want to block a podcast that is hosted on Apple Podcasts, this cannot be done without restricting access to the IP address of the entire server.
That means, if you want to block one podcast hosted by Apple Podcasts, you can only do that by blocking the whole platform.
While Russian podcasting platforms like Yandex Music and social network VK do cooperate with the authorities and boot out anti-war podcasts, Western platforms do not.
This is why some independent media outlets have decided on launching their podcasts after the start of the war, or promoting them as an alternative source of information.
One of the most recent ones is Vyorstka, a new media outlet with a focus on Russian politics and society launched after the start of the war and blocked soon after. They decided to create audio versions of their longform pieces, saying that this is a “real chance” to cut through censorship and reach “fellow citizens”, since, as they emphasise, audio content is not bound to the website only and can be hosted everywhere.
As soon as the war started, Riga-based Meduza started urging its readers to download their app, and their existing app users to update it as soon as possible, promoting it as the most reliable way to follow their content without using a VPN service in Russia.
Roskomsvoboda’s Shakirov notes the likelihood of an app being successfully blocked depends on its design. It is much more complicated to block apps that use the technology of hidden transmission of a new IP address. The only way to block such an app is to block all push notifications, which is something neither Android nor Apple would agree to, he notes.
A couple of months into the war, Meduza also brought back a more old-fashioned way to get around censorship: offline content. You can now download their articles in a PDF format and send them as an attachment or even print it out and share it with those that might not have access to a VPN service. They can be created both on Meduza’s website and in its app and can also be read as an ebook.
Veronica Snoj is an Argentinian-Slovenian journalist with a longstanding interest in Russian affairs.