Russia’s Independent Media Defies Kremlin Crackdown

From a Wall Street Journal story by Sam Schechner, Yuliva Chernova, and Keach Hagey headlined “Russia’s Independent Media, Battling for Survival, Defies Kremlin Crackdown”:

Minutes before a handful of Russian journalists were set to publish a joint interview in late March with Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky, Russia’s telecommunications regulator sent out a warning.

“Refuse to publish this interview,” the regulator told the country’s media outlets, threatening to take action against those that did.

Ivan Kolpakov said he barely paused to consider the demand. Meduza, the independent news organization where Mr. Kolpakov is editor in chief, published the unabridged Russian-language interview to its website, as well as on AlphabetInc.’s YouTube, where it has reeled in more than 5.7 million views.

“Our main goal right now is to show this war to Russians through the eyes of Ukrainians,” said Mr. Kolpakov, who is operating from outside Russia.

As Moscow lobs missiles into Ukrainian cities, it is also fighting an information war to control the news its citizens see about the conflict. The Kremlin has banned news sites for describing what is happening in Ukraine as a war—the Kremlin calls it a “special military operation”—and threatened up to 15-year jail sentences for those who report what authorities determine to be false information about the use of its armed forces.

That has prompted prominent Russian news outlets such as Novaya Gazeta, Echo of Moscow and TV Rain to close their doors and hundreds of journalists to flee the country. Meanwhile, Russian government propaganda is flooding TV airwaves and social-media services, and security forces have arrested more than 15,000 people who have protested the war, according to OVD-Info, an independent Russian rights group.

Despite the media crackdown, a fuller picture of what is happening on the battlefield is still managing to get through to many Russians—provided they choose to look for it.

Mr. Kolpakov’s Meduza is among the biggest in a cadre of news outlets not controlled by the Kremlin that have continued reporting on everything from Moscow’s propaganda efforts to its attacks on civilian targets. To reach Russian readers, these publications are sidestepping the Kremlin’s digital restrictions by relying on tools the government hasn’t blocked, such as YouTube and chat app Telegram. They are pushing their audiences to access their content through virtual private networks or email newsletters that slip past website blocks.

Meduza has operated in virtual exile from a headquarters in Latvia since its founding eight years ago. “When we started working in 2014, we were like people in a movie with a sign saying, ‘The apocalypse is near,’” said Mr. Kolpakov. “Now the apocalypse is happening. And we’re like, ‘We told you guys.’”

Russian journalists like Mr. Kolpakov are aware they face long odds. Though the Kremlin has been stepping up attacks on the press for a decade, the recent crackdown was a massive escalation that threatens the survival of any independent media in Russia, they say. Already, many advertisers have fled because of government scrutiny, leading publications to search for money from donations and subscriptions.

“Journalism inside Russia has been ruined,” said Tatyana Ivanova, editor in chief of Bumaga, a St. Petersburg-based online magazine that focuses largely on local issues, but its website was blocked by Russian officials after covering protests and war casualties. “We are entering an age of Russian journalism in exile.”

Russia’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs didn’t respond to a request for comment.

The perseverance of outlets such as Meduza shows that while Kremlin propaganda efforts are powerful and effective, a total blockade on independent news in a country of some 145 million people might not be possible to maintain.

Olga, who lives in St. Petersburg, says that she watched the interview Mr. Zelensky gave to Russian journalists as soon as it appeared on Meduza’s Telegram channel. She said the fact that Russian authorities tried to block the release only made it more interesting. “The forbidden fruit is sweet,” she said. The Wall Street Journal agreed to use only her first name.

Since the war began, Russian state outlets and their allies in private media have been presenting a conspiracy-riddled picture of the conflict. In those portrayals, Russian forces are liberating Ukrainians from a so-called “Nazi” Ukrainian regime and reports of the Russian army harming civilians are fabrications. Whereas Ukranian officials said hundreds of civilians were killed during Russia’s occupation of Bucha, one state television channel described the corpses as being planted by British operatives.

Though pro-Kremlin TV outlets dominate Russia’s media landscape, some independent outlets reach a sizable audience. Meduza says its website had more than 10 million unique visitors in March, more than it received in January, despite being blocked by the Kremlin at the start of the war.

Some of its stories puncture Russian propaganda with inside sources. On April 18, Meduza cited a source close to Russia’s Black Sea fleet command confirming that its missile cruiser Moskva sank after a Ukrainian attack and 37 crew members died. Russian officials have said the source of a fire on the ship was unknown and that it sank in stormy weather because of structural damage.

Russian outlets were tough on Vladimir Putin soon after his presidency began in 2000. But he gradually asserted his dominance as Kremlin-connected businesses and billionaires acquired media outlets, including big TV channels.

Journalists also started turning up dead. One high-profile case was that of Anna Politkovskaya, whose reporting for Novaya Gazeta had been critical of Mr. Putin’s war in Chechnya. Ms. Politkovskaya was shot dead in the elevator of her apartment building in 2006. Her family accused Russian secret police and Chechen security forces of ordering the murder, which both have denied. The European Court of Human Rights ruled in 2018 that Russia failed to properly investigate the matter; while Russian authorities eventually found and convicted Ms. Politkovskaya’s assassins, they made no effort to determine who ordered the killing, the judges ruled.

The Committee to Protect Journalists said in a 2021 report that Russia had six unsolved cases of journalist murders.

After Mr. Putin left office in 2008 to become prime minister under the presidency of Dmitry Medvedev, there was hope that the situation for the press wouldn’t deteriorate further, several Russian journalists said.

One of the most popular sites at the time was Lenta.ru, known for its mixture of news, lifestyle, culture and sports coverage. In 2011, the outlet reported that voters were offered money to be bused to voting locations to vote several times for Mr. Putin’s party in legislative elections. The story helped spark protests that continued through his return to the presidency for a third term in 2012.

Mr. Putin responded with a crackdown that sent many protesters to prison, shocking the country’s middle and upper classes. “That was a real blow to anything progressive,” said Karine Orlova, the Washington, D.C., correspondent for the recently closed independent radio station Echo of Moscow.

In early 2014, after Lenta covered Russia’s invasion of Crimea, the Russian billionaire who had purchased the site fired its editor in chief, Galina Timchenko. The owner told her he lacked leverage with the Kremlin to protect her, Ms. Timchenko said. Officially, the publication cited a regulator’s complaint that Lenta had published a link to an interview with a Ukrainian nationalist. Almost the entire staff quit in solidarity.

Over drinks shortly thereafter at Ms. Timchenko’s Moscow apartment, former Lenta editors including Mr. Kolpakov hatched the idea for a new media project in exile, which they would eventually call Meduza. They began recruiting a small staff of about 15 people, a figure that has grown to more than 60.

Initially, independent sites were tolerated, but that began to change after Mr. Putin resumed the presidency. The Kremlin began cracking down, including by designating publications as foreign agents, a move that can scare off advertisers averse to blowback from government officials, publications say.

Meduza was named a foreign agent in spring 2021—and within a week it lost almost 90% of its advertising revenue, said Ms. Timchenko, who serves as Meduza’s publisher and chief executive. The publication switched to a crowdfunding model, asking its readers to donate. More than 170,000 people gave money.

In February, when Russia invaded Ukraine, the government began a tougher crackdown. Russian officials said they ordered Echo of Moscow off the air and its website to be blocked early in the war. The station’s board decided to shut it down soon afterward. In early April, Dmitry Muratov, Novaya Gazeta’s editor in chief and a recipient of last year’s Nobel Peace Prize, said he was attacked with red paint in a Moscow train and sustained eye injuries, according to press reports in independent and Russian state media.

Peter Kachurin, who lives in St. Petersburg, used to listen to Echo of Moscow broadcasts while driving his daughter to sports practice. After it went off the air, he switched initially to a station owned by RBC Group that repeated false Kremlin narratives about the war in Ukraine.

“All of a sudden, I started thinking in the back of my head: What if it’s true?” Mr. Kachurin said about the official Russian version of events. “I used to think I had 100% immunity” from propaganda, he said.

Sanctions on Russia’s economy have also hurt independent publications, restricting their ability to collect subscription payments. Meduza has launched a crowdfunding campaign outside Russia to replace revenue from domestic donors but so far hasn’t signed up enough to ensure its survival.

“We are the collateral damage from the sanctions,” Mr. Kolpakov said.

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