Repression in Russia, renaissance outside of it

Marina Ovsyannikova was detained, then freed again. Those words were true in March after Ovsyannikova, then a staffer at a Russian state TV network, held up a sign on air opposing Russia’s war against Ukraine, and they were true again two weeks ago, after she spoke out publicly against the war again. Following her initial TV protest, Ovsyannikova was fined the equivalent of a few hundred US dollars, not for the protest itself but for a video message she posted to social media explaining her disenchantment. Last week, following her second arrest and release, she was fined again, this time in the region of eight hundred US dollars, for “discrediting” Russia’s armed forces. “What’s going on here is absurd,” she said in court, according to the BBC. “War is horror, blood, and shame.”

Ovsyannikova’s TV protest in March catapulted her to international fame, with Western media quickly elevating her as a symbol of dissent and the limits thereupon in Putin’s Russia, even though she ultimately avoided imprisonment under draconian new laws criminalizing free speech about the war. At the time, there were plenty of such symbols to go around, and many of them suffered harsher fates than Ovsyannikova without necessarily capturing the same attention. The Russian regime had already restricted the space for free speech and independent journalism in the months and years leading up to the war, and following its invasion of Ukraine, it turned the screw tighter still. In the early days of the war, the authorities forced various news organizations offline or off the air, including the storied broadcaster Ekho Moskvy and the younger upstart TV Rain; journalists from those outlets and others were forced into exile, while others self-censored. In addition to the new speech law’s criminalization of the words “war” and “invasion,” officials continued to brandish regulations that they had already weaponized against the press, including a law used to smear various news organizations as “foreign agents” and force them to comply with onerous disclosure rules. At the end of March, Novaya Gazeta—the last prominent independent Russian newspaper in operation, which had already placed some limits on its coverage in the name of protecting its staff—said it would stop publishing until the end of the war after receiving two warnings from Russia’s media regulator that it was out of compliance with the foreign-agents law. A third could have spelled the end for the paper.

New from CJR: The growing culture of censorship by PIO

Since that first month of the war—and despite the totalizing breadth of its media clampdown during that time—the Russian regime has continued to target the independent journalists who are still working. Authorities have recently wielded the foreign-agent designation against individual reporters, one of whom was reportedly tagged with the label after foreign friends transferred her money for coffee and food; other journalists have been subjected to investigations, home searches, and fines. Others still have been arrested for spreading “fake” information about the war or discrediting the army. Their time in detention has sometimes been brief, as was the case for Ovsyannikova, but not always. In late April, Maria Ponomarenko, a journalist with the Siberian outlet RusNews, was ordered detained for two months pending an investigation; as of mid-July, she remained in pretrial detention, alleging in an open letter that she had been consigned to a psychiatric facility and tortured, including by forced injection. By one recent count, at least twelve journalists have been charged under Russia’s new speech law since it passed, with three remaining in detention.

In addition to going after individual journalists, the Russian state has continued to block, fine, and otherwise threaten smaller independent outlets that remain in operation. Russian lawmakers have considered legislation that would make it even easier for the authorities to strip independent outlets of their license to operate and to apply the “foreign agent” designation, without first requiring a court order, in the former case, or proof of foreign funding, in the latter. Prosecutors have threatened to disband a journalists’ union that has criticized the war. Last month, a new online magazine founded by staffers of Novaya Gazeta was blocked just days after it launched.

Not content with Novaya Gazeta itself pledging to go dark until the end of the war, the authorities are trying to shut it down completely. Last week, the media regulator filed a lawsuit demanding that the paper and its website be stripped of their license to operate. Officials cited a mundane-sounding regulatory pretext, but bosses at the paper said they didn’t know why the regulator had chosen to go after it again four months after its last formal warning. ​​“Is it politics? What is not politics now?” the paper asked in a statement. A hearing is scheduled for next month. Novaya Gazeta has pledged to carry on fighting, adding, “We are not saying goodbye.”

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After Russia passed its new speech law in March, there was some uncertainty as to how it would apply to correspondents for foreign media operating inside the country. Broadly, that uncertainty has persisted. In June, Russia’s foreign ministry summoned staffers from top US news organizations—including CNN, NPR, and the Associated Press—and warned them that they could face visa, accreditation, and financial problems if the US government didn’t stop making Russian journalists’ lives difficult on US soil. (The US has sanctioned some media entities tied to the Russian state; independent US news outlets, of course, have no control over this.) Last week, a Kremlin spokesperson issued a similar broad threat about Western media as a whole after a European court upheld an EU ban on the French arm of the Russian state broadcaster RT. Also this past week, Russia slapped travel bans on several journalists from New Zealand and the UK, including Piers Morgan.

Meanwhile, an inverse and contrary dynamic has intensified as exiled Russian journalists have set up shop on European soil. Some prominent Russian outlets—for example Meduza, which has long been based in Latvia—operated from outside the country even before the war, and others have now joined them. TV Rain recently relaunched out of a studio in the same country, the government of which has made proactive efforts to welcome independent Russian journalists, as the Wall Street Journal’s Evan Gershkovich reported recently. Ekho Moskvy has yet to reestablish itself elsewhere, but former journalists on the station have started broadcasting again from Germany and Lithuania, sometimes with the support of top European outlets. One independent news site, Mediazona, is now also running out of Lithuania; another, iStories, is operating from a European location that it won’t name for safety reasons, from where it is coordinating investigations of Russian war crimes in Ukraine. Dozens of exiled former staffers of Novaya Gazeta set up a separate European newsroom. “No matter how much they are scattered,” Kulle Pispanen, a former TV Rain staffer in Moscow, told Gershkovich of independent Russian media, “they grow back, like the spores of a dandelion.”

On the whole, related media trends that were not new during the early part of the war but intensified during it—increasing repression of independent journalism inside Russia, leading to a “scattering” and transplantation outside of it—have not yet let up. Independent outlets in exile have worked to serve both foreign audiences and those inside Russia, in the latter case trying to blow the truth back over the border and through the cracks in restrictions on the Russian internet. Part of their work, Gershkovich reports, now involves educating Russians about how to use VPNs to circumvent official Web blockages. To some extent, that appears to be working; demand for VPNs shot up inside Russia after the invasion. In the past, the authorities have been hesitant to clamp down on VPNs—but as Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty reported recently, Russian free-speech activists have started to observe what they believe is a coordinated “soft-power initiative” aimed at scaring Russian users away from them, claiming that they facilitate foreign data theft and drain device batteries. Either way, exiled outlets face deeply challenging circumstances to reach their compatriots while themselves building new lives.

Ovsyannikova, too, went into exile for a time—after initially rejecting an offer of safe passage to Europe, she left Russia, traveling around Europe and taking on a freelance gig as a correspondent for the German newspaper Die Welt. That has since ended—sources at Welt told Agence France-Presse that the arrangement “simply did not fit in terms of concrete collaboration and daily work processes”—and Ovsyannikova eventually returned to Russia, saying that she was going back to fight for access to her children after her ex-husband sued for sole custody. Ovsyannikova also found herself an object of suspicion, not least in Ukraine itself—Volodymyr Zelensky, the country’s president, thanked her after her on-air protest in March, but many Ukrainians are deeply skeptical of her and her intentions given her long career spent pumping out Kremlin propaganda prior to one day disavowing it. Some have even theorized that she is a Russian agent who staged a protest so that the authorities could claim to the world that they are lenient with dissenters, asking why else she’d have gotten off so lightly.

Ovsyannikova has said that she understands the skepticism about her sudden change of heart, but has pushed back on the wilder assertions; she believes the authorities only handed her a mild punishment, she told Politico’s Zoya Sheftalovich, because doing so would diminish international media coverage around her protest while also seeding doubts among foreign observers that Ovsyannikova might not be who she says she is. In any case, the things that Ovsyannikova has said about the war are true, and she has been punished for saying them—twice—even if many other Russian journalists have paid and continue to pay a higher price. According to Sheftalovich, journalists who have spoken truth to Russia’s power for years and are continuing to do so now, domestically or from exile, have sometimes “bristled” at the sudden burst of global attention Ovsyannikova attracted. They deserve our continued attention, too.

Below, more on press freedom in Russia and around the world:

  • Russia: In June—following up on the resignations of Ovsyannikova and others from national-level state media in protest of the war—Meduza and Novaya Vkladka investigated whether the same thing had happened within regional media, which is under even tighter state control, finding that “the repercussions for anti-war statements are more severe outside of Moscow, despite the fact that these cases draw far less attention.” Journalists from Meduza and Novaya Vkladka spoke with correspondents and editors for regional state media who oppose the war but decided not to quit their jobs.
  • Kashmir: Last week, authorities in India blocked Aakash Hassan, an independent journalist from Kashmir, from flying to Sri Lanka for a reporting assignment—making him the fourth Kashmiri journalist to face such a travel ban in the past year. Indian journalists who are not from Kashmir have recently been blocked from flying abroad, too, but the broader press-freedom situation in that region is looking particularly bleak right now. In March, Maria Bustillos wrote for CJR about the case of Fahad Shah, the editor in chief of the Kashmir Walla, after he was arrested. He remains in detention.
  • Cuba: Last week, authorities in Cuba sentenced Lázaro Yuri Valle Roca, a local journalist, to five years in prison on charges of “enemy propaganda and resistance.” Valle “has been held in pretrial detention since June 15, 2021, when he was arrested after police summoned him to allegedly close a 2020 contempt investigation; the day before his arrest, he had reported on pro-democracy leaflets thrown from a building in Havana for his YouTube channel Delibera,” the Committee to Protect Journalists reports. He has suffered from health problems including kidney illness related to a hunger strike.
  • The US: Yesterday marked five years since CPJ and the Freedom of the Press Foundation jointly launched the US Press Freedom Tracker to monitor press-freedom violations. “In our six years of documentation—the canonical database for press freedom violations in the United States dates to January 2017—the Tracker team has documented more than 1600 incidents across nearly a dozen categories, affecting more than 1100 journalists and news organizations,” Kirstin McCudden writes. The most violations were recorded in 2020, with more journalists assaulted in the week following the death of George Floyd in Minneapolis than in 2017 and 2019 combined.

Other notable stories:

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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.

TOP IMAGE: A police officer is at work as journalists cover the search and rescue operation at the House of Culture that was destroyed as a result of the July 25 Russian missile attack in Chuhuiv, Kharkiv Region, northeastern Ukraine. AP Photo