The Media Today

Repression in Russia, and outside of it

August 22, 2023
Evan Gershkovich (Photo by Dimitar DILKOFF / AFP) (Photo by DIMITAR DILKOFF/AFP via Getty Images)

On February 24, 2022, the day that Russia launched its full-scale invasion of Ukraine, Elena Kostyuchenko, then a journalist at the independent Russian newspaper Novaya Gazeta, traveled to Ukraine to cover the war. She reported from the border region, Odessa, Mykolaiv, and occupied Kherson. She was planning to go to Mariupol next, but received a series of warnings, from colleagues and Ukrainian intelligence, that Russian forces had been ordered to intercept and kill her. Reluctantly, she left Ukraine; eventually, she landed in Berlin. By that point, Novaya Gazeta had been progressively muzzled by the Russian authorities, and so Kostyuchenko took a job at Meduza, an independent Russian news site based in Latvia. From Germany, she made plans to take two reporting trips, first to Iran, then back to Ukraine.

The latter trip would require a visa, so Kostyuchenko made an appointment at the Ukrainian consulate in Munich. “Inexcusable as it is, I booked my appointment in Munich via Facebook Messenger,” she recalled in an essay for Meduza and the US magazine N+1. “I knew very well this wasn’t considered a secure messenger, but I was in Germany, not in Russia, and not a single thought of the basic security measures I’d practiced for years crossed my mind.” She took an overnight train from Berlin, then napped at the home of a friend, who took her for lunch after her appointment was done. Three acquaintances of the friend stopped by the table. “What a small city Munich is,” Kostyuchenko thought, “everyone there seemed to know each other.”

After getting back on the train, Kostyuchenko realized she was sweating heavily and smelled of “rotten fruit.” She tried to work but couldn’t concentrate; when she got back to Berlin, she couldn’t figure out how to get home, and grew distressed. She suspected the lingering effects of COVID-19, but went on to suffer from intense abdominal pain, nausea, and insomnia. “After three days of this, it became clear I wasn’t going anywhere,” she recalled. “And this wasn’t COVID-19.”

Even before Russia invaded Ukraine,
its independent media operated according to something of an inside/outside dynamic. Within Russia, officials clamped down on journalism: they arrested reporters, raided newsrooms, and tagged some outlets as “foreign agents,” a designation that carried with it both stigma and onerous bureaucracy. Outside Russia, meanwhile, exiled media, not least Meduza, grew increasingly assertive.

After the war began, this dynamic escalated. TV Rain, an independent channel that was blocked inside Russia, joined Meduza in Latvia; a European edition of Novaya Gazeta sprung up. In an edition of this newsletter that I wrote a year ago—headlined “Repression in Russia, renaissance outside of it”—I quoted Kulle Pispanen, a former TV Rain staffer, comparing independent Russian media to “the spores of a dandelion”: “No matter how much they are scattered, they grow back.” I had found the quote in a story on exiled Russian media, written by a Wall Street Journal reporter named Evan Gershkovich.

This inside/outside dynamic was always somewhat porous, in both directions. Exiled journalists aimed to put the truth about the war in front of news consumers in Russia, encouraging them to use VPNs and other tricks to circumvent official internet blackouts. Inside Russia, after an initial period of uncertainty at the start of the war, at least some reporters for Western news outlets felt their lives had regained a semblance of normalcy and that they could continue to report. Now the dynamic looks fuzzier still. Late last year, TV Rain saw its license revoked in Latvia, too, after an anchor made a remark that was perceived as pro-Russian—a decision that reflected a degree of suspicion of exiled journalists’ motives on the part of the Latvian public. (TV Rain has since shifted to a hub in the Netherlands; for our recent Authoritarianism Issue, Annie Hylton profiled Valeria Ratnikova, a host on the network who had found herself exiled twice in less than a year.) Then, in late March, Gershkovich, of the Journal, was arrested on espionage charges.

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While this was a huge escalation of the regime’s approach to foreign correspondents on Russian soil, it was not the first sign of trouble; the year before the invasion, the authorities expelled Sarah Rainsford, a BBC reporter, then kicked out Tom Vennink, of the Dutch newspaper de Volkskrant, citing “administrative violations.” There was then a lull on that front—until last week, when Eva Hartog, a Dutch national who most recently reported out of Moscow for Politico, was told that she would not have her visa or accreditation renewed; around the same time, Anna-Lena Laurén, a correspondent for the Swedish Dagens Nyheter and Finnish Hufvudstadsbladet, was also kicked out. Politico reported that, aside from Gershkovich’s arrest, the expulsions were the harshest known crackdown on foreign media since the war began. (Russia has also banned waves of high-profile foreign journalists from entering the country—including, late last week, Emily Bell, the director of Columbia’s Tow Center for Digital Journalism and a regular CJR contributor.)

By and large, domestic media have continued to suffer a harsher fate; indeed, since Gershkovich was arrested, the crackdown on dissent inside Russia has only intensified. The government moved to tighten censorship laws and tagged “undesirable” designations to both TV Rain and Novaya Gazeta’s European edition; in April, Vladimir Kara-Murza, an activist and journalist who wrote columns for the Washington Post, was sentenced to twenty-five years in prison on “treason” charges for criticizing the war in Ukraine—triple the longest comparable sentence handed down to that point. (Kara-Murza has continued to contribute to the Post from detention.) Alexei Navalny—an opposition leader who, as I have written in the past, is also in some ways a journalist, and was already in detention—has faced new complications to his case, including, allegedly, being assaulted by guards. And, last month—after mutineers led by Yevgeny Prigozhin marched on Moscow and Vladimir Putin’s grip on power teetered, if only briefly—Putin fired at least a warning shot at dissent coming from his right, which, until the mutiny, had apparently been tolerated: Igor Girkin, a blogger known as “Strelkov” who had harshly criticized Putin’s execution of the war, was arrested on extremism charges.

Exiled media, for their part, have continued to hold Russian power to account from afar. But last week, one story in this tradition—published by The Insider, in collaboration with the open-source outfit Bellingcat—sent a worrying signal that distance from Russian power may not be keeping reporters safe from its reprisals. It was a story about Kostyuchenko. And not her alone.

Medical tests
on Kostyuchenko showed highly elevated levels of two enzymes in her liver, and blood in her urine. She developed swelling and burning feelings in her hands and feet. Eventually, after discounting other diagnoses, a physician suggested that Kostyuchenko may have been poisoned. Kostyuchenko laughed off the idea—“Of course, if you’re a Russian journalist, surely it must be poisoning!”, she recalled thinking, in her essay for
Meduza and N+1—but as the conclusion became harder to avoid, she went for further tests at Charité, the same Berlin hospital that, in 2020, had treated Navalny following his suspected poisoning by Russian operatives.

Police in Germany questioned Kostyuchenko about her trip to Munich and seemed “angry,” in her recollection, that she had waited so long to report the incident. She told the officers that she had felt safe in Europe, and thus discounted the idea of poisoning. “This is exactly what bothers us,” Kostyuchenko recalls the officers telling her, in response. “You come here and think you’re on vacation. You think you’re in some kind of paradise. No one even considers taking security precautions. We have political murders happen here. Russia’s secret services are active in this country. And your recklessness, yours and your colleagues’, is just beyond the pale.”

Police closed the case for lack of evidence—but they have since reopened it, and doctors and chemical-weapons experts consulted by The Insider think it “very likely” that Kostyuchenko was indeed poisoned. The same outlet reported a very similar experience on the part of Irina Babloyan, a journalist for the independent Russian radio station Ekho Moskvy who experienced some of the same symptoms as Kostyuchenko after moving to Tbilisi, the capital of Georgia; she also went to Charité for tests, and while these, too, were inconclusive, experts said again that poisoning seemed the most likely hypothesis. The Insider offered details of a third case, too: that of Natalia Arno, the president of the US-based Free Russia Foundation, who reported odd symptoms and suspicious signs of tampering with her hotel room in Prague earlier this year. (The foundation’s vice president, Kara-Murza, has also been poisoned in the past.)

Russia targeting dissidents beyond its borders would not be a new trend, of course, and the circumstances of the incidents reported by The Insider remain murky; no perpetrators have yet been identified, and no smoking gun has been found. Nonetheless, the cases are obviously alarming. To some extent, an inside/outside dynamic still exists for Russian media. But it no longer seems to constitute a bright light between “repression” and “renaissance,” if it ever did. 

In her essay, Kostyuchenko said that she was speaking out about her experience to warn colleagues in exile that it could happen to them, too. “I want to live—and that’s why I’m writing this text,” she wrote. “I also want my colleagues, my friends, political activists, and refugees who are now abroad to remember to be careful. More careful than I have been. We are not safe, and we will never be safe until the political regime changes in Russia.”

Other notable stories:

  • The Atlantic’s Russell Berman spoke with researchers who have challenged the media narrative that Donald Trump’s recent indictments have increased his popularity among Republican primary voters; the polls that have bolstered this narrative, the researchers say, are based on flawed questions, whereas different wording produces more static outcomes or even a slight dropoff in support for Trump. In a similar vein, the Washington Post’s Aaron Blake poured cool water on a widely discussed recent poll finding that more Trump voters trust him than trust their own friends and family, conservative media, and religious leaders, noting that the latter groups “enjoy only middling levels of trust in the conservative base,” and that Trump’s trust level among his supporters is “not that great.”
  • Politico’s Eugene Daniels spent time with Vice President Kamala Harris, who is attempting to reset her public image after years of negative headlines, including, Daniels notes, by “inviting reporters to witness her behind the scenes.” Asked whether she feels she faces more scrutiny than her predecessors, Harris concurred, but added that she accepts it. And allies “point to a slightly more positive tone in media coverage over the last year or so,” per Daniels. “To them, coverage was largely about style over substance until Harris took on the issue of abortion. That put her front and center on an issue that not just suited the vice president’s skillset but also one DC was actually talking about.”
  • Brittany Hailer—the director of the Pittsburgh Institute for Nonprofit Journalism, who has reported extensively on a local jail—sued county officials over policies that block staffers there from speaking to the press without permission from the warden, claiming that the policies violate the First Amendment. The suit was assisted by the Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press and Yale Law School, and was hailed by the Society of Professional Journalists, which believes it to be the first of its kind brought by a reporter. (Last year, SPJ’s Kathryn Foxhall wrote for CJR about the gagging of public employees.)
  • Yesterday, the Daily Beast’s Lachlan Cartwright reported that Laura Bassett has resigned as editor in chief of Jezebel—becoming the seventh top editor at a site owned by G/O Media to have quit in the last eight months, and the second in as many weeks. Per Cartwright, Jim Spanfeller, the CEO, has become “unhinged and impossible to work for.” In a tweet confirming Cartwright’s reporting, Bassett said that she had resigned “reluctantly” because G/O “refused to treat my staff with basic human decency.” 
  • And Steven Kurutz, of the New York Times, explored how Standard Industries, a company initially focused on roofing, came to invest in a series of buzzy media startups, including Air Mail and Puck, and hire a clutch of former staffers from Vanity Fair. “The answer,” Kurutz writes, “is as much about the aspirations and evolution of Standard as it is about the extinction of the type of career once offered by legacy print media.”

ICYMI: Dangerous threats to local press freedom

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.