/ 26 July 2022

Russia’s repressed independent media is vital to building a post-Putin era

Ukraine Conflict Refugees In Hungary
Hungary, Tiszabecs: A woman fleeing war and Russian attack from Ukraine with a little girl crosses the border into Hungary in the Hungarian municipality of Tiszabecs. The border between Hungary and Ukraine is about 140 kilometers long. (Marton Monus/picture alliance via Getty Images)

Russia’s full-scale invasion of Ukraine has been accompanied by a clampdown on independent media and has led an estimated 200 000 people to flee the country.

Among those to have left Russia in recent months are almost all independent journalists and activists, whose opposition to the war exposes them to state intimidation and prosecution.

The threat is perhaps best evidenced by a recent law criminalising “fake news”, which makes referring to the war as a “war” — rather than the Kremlin’s official designation of “special military operation” — punishable by up to 15 years in prison.

But even abroad, journalists face significant political risks. The Russian government has recently opened criminal investigations into several prominent writers accused of “discrediting” the army.

They also face difficulties in gathering information on what is happening back home, and are constrained financially by the effect of sanctions on transferring money from Russia and by platforms such as YouTube preventing Russians from monetising content on their websites.

Despite these significant risks and obstacles, Russian journalists continue to cover the war, investigate political developments in the country and use all available media channels to communicate with the Russian public.

Although vastly overmatched by the reach, volume and financial power of state media, journalists are exploring new ways to reach Russian audiences, innovating in their methods and messaging.

What are the prospects for opposition?

Sources of optimism in the Russian media landscape are hard to find. Still, some hope may be detected in the gaps that persist in the system of Russian state censorship and propaganda, and the ways journalists and activists are exploiting them.

Russian media censorship can be seen as a numbers game. That is to say, it is focused on making accessing independent media difficult and sufficiently risky to discourage most of the population from seeking it out.

Even now, Russia’s leaders are not aiming to totally suffocate the media landscape by cutting off the country from the outside world. The state has taken control of all traditional media channels — television, radio and print media. But the internet appears to remain underestimated and poorly understood by Russia’s gerontocratic leadership.

Digital media has become a refuge for opposition, despite increasing censorship and surveillance online. Although the state has declared Meta an “extremist organisation” and banned its social media platforms, Facebook and Instagram, other outlets remain accessible. These include YouTube (owned by Google’s parent company, Alphabet), and messaging apps WhatsApp (owned by Meta but not affected by the ban) and Telegram, which is used extensively by opposition media despite questions about its security.

Instead of total censorship, measures such as the “foreign agent” law aim to make it increasingly difficult for independent media to operate. The law requires all “foreign agents” to preface their publications and social media posts with a now-notorious statement professing their new status. It also imposes onerous financial reporting requirements on “foreign agents” and restricts their ability to attract advertising revenue.

Other restrictions, such as the blocking of news outlets slike Meduza, make it impossible to access these sites from Russia without the use of a VPN. Meta’s status as an “extremist organisation” could also potentially be used to prosecute Facebook and Instagram users.

Although unable to compete with state propaganda (particularly state television channels) in terms of audience numbers, independent media outlets — such as agentura.ru, Proekt and Mediazona still operate. These continue to investigate and publish information about the war and domestic political developments in Russia.

In the first days of the war, Russian independent media even became far more “mainstream” as Russian audiences turned to it to fill the information gap left by state media. As that wave of public opposition has subsided amid escalating repression, Russian independent media finds itself in an indeterminate position. Although it cannot displace state media from its central position in the Russian media landscape, Russian independent media nevertheless continues to reach millions.

The question is: how can independent media best use what space it has to counter Russian state disinformation and provide people with more varied and evidence-based journalism?

Values-based opposition

Efforts to expose the lies of Russian propaganda face overwhelming odds given state media’s financial resources and the increasing sophistication of disinformation techniques in Russia. At the beginning of the war, the Russian ministry of defence launched its own “fact-checking” Telegram channel to further spread disinformation.

Independent journalists’ efforts to fight state disinformation are nevertheless yielding important results, for example, in the case of the “crucified boy” story in 2014 or, more recently, “Babushka Z”. But a growing body of evidence suggests that responding to disinformation is insufficient to reduce the dominance of state media in Russia.

Alongside efforts to provide audiences with factual, accurate information, journalists can also combat disinformation at the level of values — as argued by researcher Ilya Yablokov at a recent event — and so provide a positive alternative to the narratives and falsehoods of state propaganda. Outlets such as Holod Media are already publishing about feminist activism in Russia and the experiences of non-ethnic Russians. Such articles show how independent media can offer a more progressive, egalitarian and tolerant alternative to the increasingly conspiratorial and nationalist content of state media.

Similarly, opposition figures regularly use YouTube to publish both politically oppositional and more broadly “alternative” content, which — as in the case of popular hosts such as Katerina Gordeeva, Ekaterina Shulman and Yuri Dud — is watched by millions of viewers. One of Dud’s most popular films, Kolyma: Birthplace of Our Fear, which directly criticises state-endorsed historical narratives about the Stalinist era, has been watched more than 27 million times.

Despite these successes, independent journalists face challenges in reaching audiences beyond a core liberal opposition. They must continue to explore current issues and tell stories that speak to those outside their primary audience — particularly older, non-urban or less-educated people — who are open to alternatives to the violent monotony of Russian state propaganda.

Meduza, for example, which has been based in Latvia since 2014, has worked hard to stay connected with its audience, organising video calls and encouraging dialogue between its editorial board and readers.

The intensification of Putin’s government’s control in Russia has pushed independent journalism out of the country, but it has not altogether prevented its operation or the flow of information into and out of Russia.

While digital communications are easily shut down, they have proven that they can offer multiple, changing opportunities for independent journalists to operate remotely. Independent journalism based on alternative values or principles creates opportunities to undermine state media by breaking the totality of state narratives. This is not just a chance to combat the silencing of independent journalism but also to contribute, in a small way, to people’s ability to imagine different answers to questions about Russia’s future.

Although no one can say when or how Vladimir Putin’s rule will come to an end, the fact that it will is inevitable. The question is what comes next.

Independent media will have a crucial role to play. It must offer an alternative vision of what Russia can be, provide ideas and values to overcome political apathy, and show that the censorship and repression that have defined late-Putinist Russia are problems to be overcome, and not inevitable conditions to be tolerated.

Support from social media platforms and international news outlets is crucial in this context. But ultimately, it is journalists, whether still in Russia or in exile abroad, who are best placed to reach Russian audiences and show that — despite what the Russian state may claim — there is an alternative.

This is an edited version of an article first published jointly by openDemocracy and the Overseas Development Institute.

Farida Rustamova is an independent journalist and publisher of the Faridaily newsletter.
Theo Tindall is a research officer at the Overseas Development Institute think-tank.

Stephanie Diepeveen is a research fellow at ODI. She is also a senior research associate at the Bennett Institute for Public Policy, University of Cambridge.

The views expressed are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the official policy or position of the Mail & Guardian.