Russia’s Independent Media, Battling for Survival, Defies Kremlin Crackdown

In a climate where independent media is under constant pressure from the Kremlin, Radio Svoboda has been one of the few outlets on which listeners and readers can turn for alternative perspectives. Although Radio Svoboda’s staff members have received death threats, Russia’s leading independent radio station continues to fight for its survival against all odds.

Russia’s telecoms authority issued a warning minutes before a group of Russian journalists were about to broadcast a joint interview with Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky in late March.

The regulator warned the country’s media outlets to “refuse to publish this interview,” threatening to take action against any who did.

Ivan Kolpakov stated he just took a moment to examine the request. Mr. Kolpakov’s independent news outlet, Meduza, released the entire Russian-language interview on its website as well as on Alphabet Inc.’s YouTube, where it has received over 5.7 million views.

“Right now, our major purpose is to present this battle to Russians via the perspective of Ukrainians,” Mr. Kolpakov, who is based outside of Russia, said.

Moscow is launching an information war to control the news its residents receive about the crisis while it fires missiles into Ukrainian cities. The Kremlin has forbidden news outlets from portraying the situation in Ukraine as a war (the Kremlin refers to it as a “special military operation”), and has threatened individuals who publish what authorities deem to be incorrect information concerning the employment of its armed forces with up to 15-year prison terms.

This has led to the closure of significant Russian news outlets like as Novaya Gazeta, Echo of Moscow, and TV Rain, as well as the exodus of hundreds of journalists. Meanwhile, according to OVD-Info, an independent Russian rights organization, Russian government propaganda is filling TV airwaves and social media networks, and security forces have detained over 15,000 individuals protesting the war.

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In a March interview with Russian media from Kyiv, Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky drew millions of views.

HANDOUT/EPA-EFE/Shutterstock/UKRAINIAN PRESIDENTIAL PRESS SERVICE

Despite the media crackdown, many Russians are still getting a richer picture of what is going on on the battlefield—if they want to seek for it.

Mr. Kolpakov’s Meduza is one of the most well-known of a group of independent news organizations that have continued to report on everything from Moscow’s propaganda operations to its assaults on civilian targets. These publications are circumventing the Kremlin’s digital limitations by using platforms that the government hasn’t prohibited, such as YouTube and the messaging app Telegram, to reach Russian readers. They are encouraging their consumers to get their material through virtual private networks or email newsletters that get around website restrictions.

Since its inception eight years ago, Meduza has functioned in virtual exile from a Latvian headquarters. Mr. Kolpakov said, “When we first began working in 2014, we were like individuals in a movie with a banner proclaiming, ‘The apocalypse is nigh.’” “The apocalypse is now upon us. And we’re like, ‘We warned you.’”

In Russia, media coverage of Russian soldiers entering Ukraine differs from that in the United States. Many media shows use maps and misinformation to influence public opinion by supporting Moscow’s choice to attack its neighbor. Sharon Shi composite photo

Russian journalists like Mr. Kolpakov are well aware of the challenges they encounter. The latest crackdown, they argue, was a significant escalation that threatens the viability of any independent media in Russia, despite the fact that the Kremlin has been increasing assaults on the press for a decade. Because of government inspection, many advertisers have already departed, forcing publications to rely on contributions and subscriptions for funding.

“Russian journalism has been devastated,” Tatyana Ivanova, editor in chief of Bumaga, a St. Petersburg-based online magazine that focuses mostly on local topics, but whose website was banned by Russian government when it covered demonstrations and war deaths. “We are approaching an era of exiled Russian journalists.”

A request for comment from Russia’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs was not returned.

The persistence of publications like Meduza demonstrates that, although Kremlin propaganda is strong and successful, a complete embargo on alternative journalism in a nation of 145 million people may be impossible to sustain.

“‘When we first began working in 2014, we were like characters in a movie holding a sign that said, ‘The apocalypse is nigh.’ Now the apocalypse has here.”

— Meduza’s editor in chief, Ivan Kolpakov

Olga, a resident of St. Petersburg, claims she viewed Mr. Zelensky’s interview with Russian journalists as soon as it was broadcast on Meduza’s Telegram channel. The fact that Russian officials attempted to prevent the distribution simply added to the intrigue, she said. “The forbidden fruit is delicious,” she said. The Wall Street Journal decided to solely use her first name in the article.

Since the start of the war, Russian official media and its commercial media supporters have painted a bleak image of the battle. Russian soldiers are freeing Ukrainians from a so-called “Nazi” Ukrainian dictatorship, according to such depictions, and claims of the Russian army hurting civilians are false. Hundreds of people were slain during Russia’s annexation of Bucha, according to Ukrainian authorities, however one state media program claimed the bodies were placed by British agents.

Despite the fact that pro-Kremlin television stations dominate Russia’s media landscape, several independent channels have a substantial viewership. Despite being banned by the Kremlin at the outset of the conflict, Meduza claims its website had more than 10 million unique visits in March, up from January.

Some of its pieces use inside sources to debunk Russian misinformation. Meduza reported on April 18 that a source close to Russia’s Black Sea navy leadership confirmed that the missile cruiser Moskva sunk following a Ukrainian strike, killing 37 crew members. According to Russian authorities, the reason of the ship’s fire is unclear, and it sunk in harsh weather due to structural problems.

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The Russian missile cruiser Moskva sunk last month following a Ukrainian strike, as shown in a picture given by the Russian Defense Ministry Press Service in 2015.

Associated Press photo

Soon after Vladimir Putin took office in 2000, Russian media were critical of him. However, when Kremlin-connected corporations and oligarchs purchased media outlets, including major television networks, Putin increasingly strengthened his influence.

Journalists began to show up dead as well. Anna Politkovskaya, whose reporting for Novaya Gazeta had been critical of Mr. Putin’s campaign in Chechnya, was one high-profile example. In 2006, Ms. Politkovskaya was fatally murdered in the elevator of her apartment building. Her family suspected Russian secret police and Chechen security forces of arranging her assassination, which both denied. The European Court of Human Rights declared in 2018 that Russia failed to adequately investigate the case; although Russian authorities finally discovered and imprisoned Ms. Politkovskaya’s murderers, the judges determined that they made no attempt to identify who ordered the crime.

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In a study from 2021, the Committee to Protect Journalists said that Russia has six unresolved incidents of journalist killings.

According to numerous Russian journalists, there was anticipation that the situation for the press would improve once Mr. Putin left office in 2008 to become Prime Minister under Dmitry Medvedev’s administration.

Lenta.ru, which covered news, lifestyle, culture, and sports, was one of the most popular sites at the time. According to the publication, people were given money to be bused to polling booths many times for Mr. Putin’s party in parliamentary elections in 2011. Protests erupted in response to the news, which persisted into his third term in office in 2012.

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In December 2011, people demonstrated in Moscow over suspected election fraud in Russia’s parliamentary elections. The protests attracted a retaliatory response from the Kremlin.

DMITRY CHISTOPRUDOV/Getty Images/Agence France-Presse

Mr. Putin retaliated with a crackdown that resulted in the imprisonment of many protesters, shocking the country’s middle and upper classes. “That was a terrible setback for everything progressive,” Karine Orlova, Washington, D.C. reporter for the recently defunct independent radio station Echo of Moscow, remarked.

After Lenta reported Russia’s invasion of Crimea in early 2014, the Russian millionaire who bought the site sacked Galina Timchenko, its editor in chief. Ms. Timchenko claimed the owner informed her he didn’t have enough clout with the Kremlin to protect her. The magazine referenced an official complaint from a regulator claiming Lenta had published a link to an interview with a Ukrainian nationalist. Almost the whole workforce resigned in unison.

Former Lenta editors, including Mr. Kolpakov, developed the concept for a new media enterprise in exile, which they would ultimately name Meduza, over cocktails soon after at Ms. Timchenko’s Moscow residence. They started with a small team of roughly 15 employees, which has now expanded to more than 60.

Independent websites were permitted at first, but that changed once Mr. Putin reclaimed the presidency. The Kremlin started tightening down, including branding periodicals as foreign agents, a step that outlets fear might deter advertisers wary of government retaliation.

Meduza was labeled a foreign agent in spring 2021, and within a week, it had lost about 90% of its advertising income, according to Ms. Timchenko, the publisher and chief executive of Meduza. The journal converted to a crowdfunding approach, requesting donations from its readers. Over 170,000 individuals contributed.

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Galina Timchenko was the editor-in-chief of a news website covering Russia’s annexation of Crimea. She was eventually dismissed.

The Wall Street Journal’s Katrina Kepule took this photo.

When Russia invaded Ukraine in February, the administration initiated a harsher crackdown. Early in the battle, Russian authorities stated they ordered Echo of Moscow to be taken off the air and its website to be disabled. Soon after, the station’s board decided to shut it down. According to press accounts in independent and Russian official media, Dmitry Muratov, the editor in chief of Novaya Gazeta and a laureate of the Nobel Peace Prize last year, was assaulted with red paint aboard a Moscow train in early April and received eye damage.

While taking his daughter to sports practice, Peter Kachurin, a resident of St. Petersburg, liked to listen to Echo of Moscow broadcasts. He originally moved to a station owned by RBC Group after it went off the air, which promoted bogus Kremlin narratives regarding the conflict in Ukraine.

“All of a sudden, in the back of my mind, I began to wonder: What if it’s true?” About the official Russian account of events, Mr. Kachurin remarked. “I used to believe I was immune to propaganda 100 percent,” he added.

Sanctions on Russia’s economy have also harmed independent newspapers, making it difficult for them to collect subscription fees. Meduza has started a crowdfunding effort outside of Russia to replace cash from domestic contributors, but it hasn’t gotten enough people to join up yet to assure its existence.

Mr. Kolpakov said, “We are the collateral harm of the sanctions.”

Sam Schechner, Yuliya Chernova, and Keach Hagey may be reached at [email protected], [email protected], and [email protected], respectively.

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