The Media Today

The Putin regime obliterates press freedom

March 7, 2022
Police Officers detain a protestor during a demonstration against the Russian military operation in Ukraine. (Photo by Stringer / SOPA Images/Sipa USA)(Sipa via AP Images)

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 long-standing 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 at the end of a final online broadcast that it was shutting down indefinitely, before cutting to a clip from Swan Lake that 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.

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Fearing prosecution, more independent news sites quickly shut themselves down, while Meduza began urgently to relocate 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 Proekt as “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.”

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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 Gazeta said, 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.”

Below, more on Russia and Ukraine:

Other notable stories:

  • Recently, President Biden, whose relative reluctance to sit for formal media interviews has rankled members of the press corps, reached out to Heather Cox Richardson, a historian who writes a hugely popular newsletter on Substack, to offer a sit-down. “It was an amazing time to be able to talk to the President,” Richardson writes, coming in the wake of Russia’s invasion of Ukraine and his historic nomination of Judge Ketanji Brown Jackson to the Supreme Court—but Richardson didn’t want to ask about any of that. “I wanted to hear from a historic figure in a historic time about how he thinks about America in this pivotal moment, to put the specifics of what he does in a larger context.”
  • As media Twitter argued over the weekend as to whether or not it’s gauche for journalists to cultivate an individual “brand,” Elizabeth Spiers tried to reframe the debate. “The word ‘brand’ specifically appears to send people into paroxysms of revulsion. But all of the performative gagging looks silly when you just substitute a word journalists respect: reputation,” Spiers writes. “When you see journalists writing books on the side and teaching or doing TV or podcast projects, it’s generally not because they’re attention seekers who need to be everywhere; it’s because it helps them pay the rent.”
  • Last week, the union representing staffers at sites owned by G/O Media announced an open-ended strike after the union’s contract expired without agreement being reached on the terms of a new one. Over the weekend, the strike ended after unionized staffers reached a “tentative deal” with management. According to the union, bosses agreed “to raise salary minimums, severance, and parental leave; maintain our health care while requiring it to be trans-inclusive; and ensure annual increases for our unit members.”
  • For his newsletter on Colorado media, Corey Hutchins spoke with Jason Van Tatenhove, a former propagandist for the Oath Keepers, a far-right militia, who now speaks out against extremism and runs a local-news publication on Substack. Local sources “know me as a local journalist because that’s how they got to know me,” Van Tatenhove said. “And they’re now, like you are, figuring out what my brief history with that group was.”
  • Last week, authorities in Louisiana recaptured and jailed a serial child-sex offender after he was erroneously released early from prison and his victims and reporters at WWL, a New Orleans TV station, started asking questions. When two WWL journalists visited the offender’s address, they were attacked by his brother-in-law, who wielded a wrench and tried to hit one of the journalists with his truck. WWL and have more details.
  • Also last week, a key legislative committee in Hawai‘i advanced a bill that would relieve state agencies of their legal obligation to place certain paid public notices in local newspapers—mirroring similar attempted moves in states across the country. State officials say that publishing the notices on agency websites would save money, but newspaper publishers oppose the bill. Kevin Dayton has more for Honolulu Civil Beat.
  • The Post’s Karen Attiah criticized The Atlantic’s new cover story on Mohammed bin Salman, the Saudi crown prince who Western intelligence agencies have concluded approved the murder of the Post columnist Jamal Khashoggi in 2018. The story “checks all the boxes of everything wrong with so much journalism about Saudi Arabia under MBS,” Attiah writes, while giving MBS a platform “to present himself as the real victim.”
  • On Friday, Juan Carlos Muñiz, a reporter who covered crime for a news site in the Mexican state of Zacatecas, was killed—becoming the seventh journalist to meet that fate in Mexico this year. Andrés Manuel López Obrador, Mexico’s president, “has promised there will not be impunity in the killings,” the Associated Press reports, “while at the same time regularly attacking journalists critical of his administration.”
  • And New York’s Matt Stieb profiled Anthony Weiner, the disgraced Democratic politician who recently launched a radio show with Curtis Sliwa, the defeated Republican mayoral candidate, on a conservative talk station in New York. Weiner has come to believe that a yearning for fame contributed to his “undoing.” The new show, Weiner says, “is the shallowest end of a shallow training pool if I’m going to figure out how to deal with public attention.”

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Jon Allsop is a freelance journalist whose work has appeared in the New York Review of Books, Foreign Policy, and The Nation, among other outlets. He writes CJR’s newsletter The Media Today. Find him on Twitter @Jon_Allsop.