The Putin Regime Obliterates Press Freedom

From CJR’s The Media Today with Jon Allsop headlined “The Putin regime obliterates press freedom”:

ONE VERY LONG WEEK AGO, David Remnick, the editor of The New Yorker, published an interview that he had conducted over email with Dmitry Muratov, his counterpart at the longstanding Russian newspaper Novaya Gazeta, around the latter’s “crowded schedule of editorial meetings, street demonstrations, and late-night phone calls.” Late last year, Muratov shared in a Nobel Peace Prize, awarded in recognition of embattled journalists everywhere; now he was scrambling to cover his country’s invasion of Ukraine, putting out an issue in Russian and Ukrainian and signing a cover note in both languages calling the war “madness.” Muratov predicted that his paper was in for “a very difficult period” after it rejected warnings from Russian officials to stick to the government line. “We received an order to ban the use of the words ‘war,’ ‘occupation,’ ‘invasion,’” he told Remnick. “However, we continue to call war war. We are waiting for the consequences.”

Novaya Gazeta wasn’t the only independent Russian outlet to receive such orders; at least nine others got them, too. As the week went on, the Putin regime turned the screw. Officials blocked the websites of the New Times, which had reported details of Russian military casualties, and Current Time, a channel run by the US-backed Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty; then, on Tuesday, they ordered that Ekho Moskvy—a radio station with a legacy of independent broadcasting dating back to the waning days of the Soviet Union—be taken off the air. On Thursday, Ekho disappeared entirely after its directors voted to liquidate it; the same day, TV Rain, a much younger independent network that officials had also ordered closed, announced that it was shutting down indefinitely at the end of a final online broadcast, before cutting to a clip from Swan Lakethat Soviet state TV used as placeholder footage at times of political turbulence. On Friday, officials blocked the website of Meduza, a Russian outlet based in neighboring Latvia, as well as other internationally-produced Russian-language news sites. The same day, Russian lawmakers passed, and Putin signed, an Orwellian new law criminalizing “fake” news about the war. Violations are punishable by up to fifteen years in jail.

Fearing prosecution, more independent news sites quickly shut themselves down, while Meduza began urgently to evacuate staffers from inside Russia. (Dozens of Russian journalists, including Tikhon Dzyadko, the top editor at TV Rain, had left already.) It wasn’t immediately clear whether or how the law would apply to foreign journalists based in Russia, but major international outlets moved to take precautions while they sought more clarity. The Washington Post and AFP removed Moscow-based reporters’ bylines from certain stories, while others went further still, with Bloomberg, CBS, ABC, and other US outlets—as well as major European outlets including Spain’s EFE, Italy’s RAI, and Germany’s ZDFall announcing that they would, in some form, temporarily suspend their reporting or broadcasts from Russia. CNN said that it would stop broadcasting in Russia for the time being; the BBC, which had already been blocked by the government, said that it was suspending its operations inside the country to protect its journalists and support staff. It wasn’t just news organizations that were affected—the video-sharing app TikTok said that the new law gave it “no choice” but to suspend new content in Russia. The Committee to Protect Journalists said that Putin had plunged Russia into an “information dark age.” Reporters Without Borders called the new law the “final blow” for the country’s free press.

Independent Russian media have long faced sharp obstacles to their work. In recent months, the Putin regime has added more, tagging many outlets and journalists as “foreign agents,” a designation that entails both stigma and onerous reporting obligations, and even branding the investigative website Proektas “undesirable,” effectively criminalizing it. In the days since the invasion began, Russian authorities have continued to wield these broad regulatory weapons, in addition to their more specific orders around war coverage. On Saturday, officials slapped the “undesirable” tag on the Organized Crime and Corruption Reporting Project and iStories, a Russian partner of OCCRP, even though neither outlet currently operates inside Russia. The same day, RFE/RL said that it would shutter its Russian operations, citing both Putin’s new law and Russian tax authorities’ opening of bankruptcy proceedings against it after bosses refused to comply with the terms of its foreign-agent designation, and were hit with millions of dollars in fines.

Meanwhile, the blocking has continued. Yesterday, officials shut off several news sites, including Mediazona, which was founded by members of the dissident punk group Pussy Riot and covers the criminal-justice system. Mediazona “was the country’s last remaining independent news outlet still reporting on the war,” Kevin Rothrock, an editor at Meduza, tweeted. “The end.”

The steady erosion of press freedom overseas can doubtless sometimes seem abstract to US news consumers. What we’re seeing now in Russia is the logical endpoint of that erosion, or something close to it, and the consequences of it are anything but abstract—not just for the many brave journalists whose work has just been criminalized, but also for those at home and around the world who are relying on them to tell the truth in a dangerous moment. Outlets including Mediazona, Meduza, and RFE/RL have vowed to continue covering Russia and its war, from afar if necessary, and advised their Russia-based readers on how to circumvent official web blockages using VPNs, the dark web, or social apps including Telegram. But carrying on is harder than ever. A large proportion of donations to Meduza are made via payment processors that are no longer available in Russia, making the site increasingly reliant on international donations. Dzyadko, the editor of TV Rain, told CPJ that his operation needs time to regroup after it was banned. “I can’t say how, or in what format, or when, we will resume work,” he said.

Days after Muratov vowed to “call war war,” Novaya Gazetasaid, in the wake of the “fake news” law, that it would remove articles about the invasion from its website and cease covering it going forward in order to protect its journalists, though the paper also said that it would continue covering the domestic consequences of the war, including the “persecution of dissidents, including for anti-war statements.” As The New Yorker’s Masha Gessen reported in an insightful recent profile of Novaya Gazeta, Muratov has, over the years, made many “fraught bargains” to keep his reporters safe—pausing coverage of Chechnya to protect a correspondent whose colleague had just been killed; cultivating relationships, and engaging in what he calls “secret diplomacy,” with power-brokers—while pushing “the ever-shifting boundary of what is possible in Russia, but never so far that Novaya Gazeta is shut down.” This looks like another such bargain.

As Anton Troianovski reported for the New York Times last week, analysts saw something similar as being true of Aleksei Venediktov, the longtime editor of Ekho Moskvy, attributing the station’s survival to Venediktov’s “personal connections to the ruling elite” as well as “Putin’s desire to maintain a veneer of pluralism amid his creeping authoritarianism.” The veneer is now gone, as is Ekho Moskvy. Novaya Gazeta, that other decades-old stalwart of the Russian media scene, survives still, but, as Troianovski also reported, Muratov and his colleagues aren’t sure for how much longer that will be the case. As Nadezhda Prusenkova, a Novaya Gazeta journalist, put it in an email newsletter to readers on Friday, “I don’t know what happens next.”

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