CLICK HERE to download Journalist Post 6
- It is forbidden to call the war ‘war’
- Kremlin has not yet used its weapons against journalists
- It is forbidden to use words such as “attack”, “war”, “invasion”
- According to estimates, over a thousand journalists had to leave Russia
- Up to 15 years in prison for so-called false news
A few hours after Russia’s attack on Ukraine, an open letter appeared on the Internet. “War is not and never will be the right way to solve problems,”. It was signed by more than 70 Russian journalists. Other free media workers analysed the situation in a similar way. “War is madness” was the headline of the respected newspaper Nowaja Gaseta. It emphasised that the Ukrainian people are not the enemy. Prominent journalists signed open calls against the war, and many others criticised it on social media.
However, these few reactions were largely ineffective. The government stepped up its repression of journalists. The flow of information was completely controlled and the dominant view of the war was determined by the state. On the first day of the attack, Roskomnadsor, the state organisation responsible for controlling the media, issued a warning. It pointed out that only information from official sources could be used in reporting on the war. It was forbidden to use words like “attack”, “war”, “invasion”. It was a “special operation”. Anyone who broke the rules was penalised.
On the fifth day after the start of the invasion, the authorities blocked access to two of the most important figures in the independent media. These were the internet TV channels “Doschd” and “Echo Moskwy”. This decision caused widespread concern. “Nowaya Gaseta” also suspended its reporting for a month.
The Duma, the Russian parliament, dealt the biggest blow to press freedom on 4 March 2022. It approved two laws. These laws provided for prison sentences of up to 15 years for the owners of news reports that allegedly gave false information about the military or for those accused of discrediting the military. The laws laid the foundations for military censorship. Any news that differed from the official statements of the Ministry of Defence was considered “fake news” and subject to punishment.
Censorship on the internet was also toughened. Facebook, Twitter and Instagram were shut down in March and access to many addresses was blocked. Only Telegram and Youtube remained as independent sources of information. The new laws led to a mass exodus of Russian media workers. According to estimates, 30 news centres and over a thousand journalists have been forced to leave Russia. Most of them are now practising their profession in countries such as Georgia, Latvia and the Netherlands.
The only news organisations left in the country are the propaganda channels, the newspapers of oligarchs close to the regime and a number of private regional media outlets. These either impose strict censorship on themselves or do not publish any news about the war. However, there are a few examples, such as the online newspaper “Ljudi Baikala” from Irkutsk, Siberia. This organisation is trying to overcome the censorship by publishing reports on the economic and social consequences of the war on a regional scale.
However, despite the toughening of the laws, the number of journalists imprisoned in Russia remains relatively low. Seven journalists have been arrested since the war broke out and are currently in prison. 14 journalists have been released. But these developments are no cause for relief – quite the opposite. The Kremlin has not yet even needed to use most of its repressive tools to kill independent journalism in the country. It may therefore resort to more radical methods in the fight against press freedom. For example, mass arrests or, as has been discussed for months, a complete blocking of YouTube and a Belarusian style of internet censorship. In this neighbouring country, the use of VPN services or subscriptions to channels considered extremist are also punishable by criminal sanctions.
– Birger Schütz is press officer for Russia, Eastern Europe and Central Asia at Reporters Without Borders (RSF). He studied political science, modern history and Russian studies in Greifswald and Irkutsk and worked as a reporter for the daily newspaper “Nordkurier”. He then worked for 2.5 years as a correspondent for the “Moskauer Deutsche Zeitung” in the Russian capital and later as Russia correspondent for the daily “Neues Deutschland”.