Independent Russian journalists look for ways to succeed despite gov’t control

May 23, 2019
A still from the documentary “Survivors,” via YouTube.

On March 25, 2018, a massive fire tore through a busy four-story shopping mall in the Siberian city of Kemerovo. As the blaze engulfed the building, alarm systems failed to go off. Panicked customers found fire escapes blocked. As a result, 60 people died, including 37 children, most of them trapped inside a movie theater. The tragedy shocked Russia and highlighted corruption on the part of local officials, who had allowed gross violations of safety standards.

In “Survivors,” a 20-minute video published in March on social media by Romb, an independent digital outlet, Zosya Rodkevich, a journalist and documentary filmmaker, paints a powerful portrait of Kemerovo a year after the fire: a city convulsing with grief for the dead and anger at those whose actions led to the tragedy. An aging man struggles to go on living without his son and grandson. A farmer from a nearby village mourns the loss of his 11-year-old stepdaughter, who perished in the fire alongside five of her classmates. A survivor is overwhelmed by guilt. An entrepreneur whose stores were burned down in the fire accuses authorities of mismanaging compensation funds. Fifteen people have been charged in the fire, including emergency officials, firefighters and property managers. But throughout the video, there is a sense that the region’s senior officials who have allowed for corruption to flourish, have evaded justice. “Nobody has learned any lessons,” Rodkevich says, “and even in the midst of such a tragedy there is corruption.”

The video has more than 1.2 million views on YouTube, Facebook, and other platforms. Rodkevich, who received the prestigious Redkollegia prize for the video, is one of many independent journalists who are continuing to expose vital problems, hold officials accountable and sustain a profession that has been battered during Vladimir Putin’s nearly two decades in power.

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“Journalism in Russia is alive, without a doubt, but it is alive thanks to individual people,” Sergei Parkhomenko, a Russian journalist and publisher who is a senior adviser at the Kennan Institute, in Washington, says. Parkhomenko is a co-founder of the Redkollegia prize, whose name translates to Editorial Board. The prize was launched three years ago to “help those who are preserving high professional standards in Russia…in difficult circumstances.” Every month, the judges distribute $10,000, usually among three winners.

Since Putin came to power, the government has consolidated control of most major newspapers and radio stations, and all national television channels, the main source of information for Russians. As a result, news programs and political talk shows are filled with propaganda; critical voices are absent. Russia is also one of the most dangerous countries for reporters: 58 journalists have been killed since 1992, according to the Committee to Protect Journalists, and many of those crimes have not been solved. Pavel Kanygin, an investigative reporter with the independent newspaper Novaya Gazeta, who received a Nieman Fellowship at Harvard University this year, says, “Either you try to find an outlet that shares your principles or you look for another profession.”

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Romb—a less overtly political adaptation of NowThis—publishes several short videos a day on YouTube, Facebook, Twitter, and Russian social media. “We are telling stories about Russia and its people,” Daniil Alexandrov, Romb’s editor in chief, says. Funded by an NGO, it relies on a team of nine people and a network of freelancers across the country. Some of the staff remain anonymous because of the sensitive nature of their work. According to Alexandrov, the outlet’s name, which translates to “diamond,” symbolizes “a rotated angle that gives us an opportunity to look at some things from a perspective that is different from federal channels and other popular mainstream media.”

One of the videos published by Romb tells the story of an 86-year-old woman who commutes to Moscow from a small village twice a week and sells homemade pickled cabbage in an underpass in order to supplement her meager pension. Police chase her away, telling her that her work is illegal.

Another video tells the story of an NGO battling human trafficking. In the video, a 24-year-old Nigerian woman recounts how she had been lured to Moscow during last summer’s World Cup championship with the promise of work as a stylist, only to be taken to a brothel straight from the airport and forced into prostitution.

Those who are determined to stay in journalism are experimenting with online platforms to report on problems that the government doesn’t want exposed and tell stories from alternative angles. Meduza, an online outlet, is renown for quality news and strong investigative journalism. Another site, the Insider, partnered with the British investigative outlet Bellingcat to investigate last year’s poisoning of a former Russian spy in England. The Bell is an e-mail newsletter that provides an overview of the day’s top news in Russia and the world with a business focus. Proekt (Project), an investigative site, recently published a series of reports on Yevgeny Prigozhin, a Russian tycoon who was indicted in the United States for his alleged role in using social media trolls to meddle in the 2016 presidential election.

On YouTube, Yuri Dud has become one of the most popular journalists and video bloggers for his interviews with musicians, politicians, and other celebrities. “Television is completely dead, but there are still a great many people in the country who have brains and they want to have access to content that is more free and much less constrained by anything,” Dud, who has more than 5 million subscribers, said in an interview with GQ Russia.

Last month, Dud published a two hour-long documentary about the crimes committed under Soviet dictator Joseph Stalin, in which Dud seeks to “tell some people and remind others what horror our country went through.” In the film, he travels to Kolyma, a region in Russia’s Far East, home to Stalin’s deadliest camps, where inmates toiled in minus 50 degree cold and died of starvation and disease, many of them innocent of any crime.

Dud was inspired to make the documentary when he learned from an opinion poll that 47 percent of Russians aged 18-24 weren’t aware of the history of Stalin’s purges. In about a month, Dud’s film was seen by over 14 million viewers on YouTube.

Dud “is making up for what you cannot see in official, traditional journalism,” says Leonid Parfyonov, a star television journalist in the 1990s and early 2000s whose popular news and political show was closed down early in Putin’s tenure because he wouldn’t toe the government line. Parfyonov himself recently made a comeback on YouTube with a weekly video blog where he talks about wine, culture, and politics.

Humanitarian journalism is also on the rise. Several publications have been launched in recent years with the aim of raising funds for charitable organizations. Takie Dela (So It Goes), for instance, recently ran a story about a 12-year-old girl in Moscow living with cystic fibrosis; the piece contained a link to a foundation that helps such patients. “There are people who are trying to explore new platforms and are doing so successfully,” Gulnoza Said, Europe and Central Asia Program Coordinator with the Committee to Protect Journalists, says.It’s something positive that I see, a lot of Russians are trying to create and distribute content outside of government control.”


The more popular these new platforms are, however, the more vulnerable they become to government attention and control. This month, Putin signed into law a bill that would restrict local internet traffic to servers inside the country in order to create a “sovereign internet.” Another recent law introduced punishment for publishing material that is deemed disrespectful to the state. A man in the Novgorod province was promptly fined $460 for posting a vulgar remark on social media about Putin.

And just this week, the entire political desk at Kommersant, a daily newspaper, announced they were quitting in protest: two of their colleagues had been forced to resign after they published a politically sensitive story.

“The government towers over the market with a giant wallet,” Vasily Gatov, an expert in Russian media and a visiting fellow at the University of Southern California, says. “As soon as there is something it doesn’t like, it turns on its vacuum cleaner.”

Rodkevich, for one, is undeterred. She compares the work of independent journalists in Russia to Sisyphean labor. “Each of us is pushing up that stone,” she says. But she won’t quit. “I don’t care that it’s dangerous,” she adds. “This is something I have to do, I have to tell those stories.”

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Maria Danilova is a freelance journalist and a fellow at the Alicia Patterson Foundation. Follow her on Twitter @mariasdanilova.