The Russian journalists fighting to cut through the state-sponsored noise
A group of independent Russian reporters are in Ukraine and attempting to break the Kremlin’s stranglehold on information
For years, Oksana Baulina did her best to stand up to Vladimir Putin’s system in Russia, and was eventually forced to flee the country. Last week, she was killed by a Russian missile, soon after arriving in Kyiv to report on Vladimir Putin’s invasion.
The death of Baulina, a former associate of opposition politician Alexei Navalny who was working for the Russian news outlet The Insider, has put the spotlight on the tiny group of independent Russian journalists now inside Ukraine.
In their work, they are attempting to break through the Kremlin’s stranglehold on information about events in the country, which official Russian media insists on calling a “special operation” to liberate Ukraine from “Nazis”.
Colleagues paid tribute to Baulina as a passionate and fierce reporter, who had given up a life working in glossy magazines to stand up for what she believed in.
“I met her a few days before her death, I was probably the only person from her previous life that she met here, and she was explaining in great detail her plans, she was just so enthusiastic and really wanting to do the reporting,” said Peter Verzilov, an activist and journalist who is the publisher of news site Mediazona, in an interview in Lviv.
Mediazona, like many Russian-language news outlets, was blocked by the Russian internet watchdog in the early days of the war for not adhering to wartime censorship rules that ban any information that could “discredit” Russia’s army.
“Despite the block, during the last month our readership numbers went up almost twice, to about 3.5 million unique visitors this month,” said Verzilov.
Nevertheless, Verzilov said it was clear that Russian state messaging was working on a large number of Russians, pointing to the numerous stories of Ukrainians contacting friends or relatives in Russia and being told they were imagining the things they could see with their own eyes.
“When your own son is telling you, ‘Dad, do not believe the fucking television, it’s not true,’ and you say ‘No, no, Nazis are just brainwashing you,’ it does show that Russian propaganda is amazingly effective for certain portions of the population. It really does work, when you’re switching between channels and all of them have the same content,” said Verzilov.
Other journalists agreed that cutting through the state-sponsored noise was getting ever harder. Last weekend, Ukrainian president Volodymyr Zelenskiy gave an interview to several independent Russian outlets, and Russian authorities immediately announced any site that published it could face criminal responsibility.
“The people who say, there’s plenty of information on the internet, they just don’t understand what they’re talking about. My twin sister asked me how to watch Zelenskiy, she just had no idea how to find it,” said Yevgenia Albats, a veteran Russian journalist who edits the New Times website.
Albats said 741 websites have been shut down in Russia since the beginning of the war, and said the effect was hard to overstate. The New Times was blocked on the second day of the war. Albats is still updating the website using a VPN, though four of her employees have left the country.
“Basically, it’s a total evaporation of any alternative news or opinions in the Russian language media sphere. Total destruction. Annihilation of any alternative views and opinions.”
A singular exception has been the reporting filed from Ukraine by Elena Kostyuchenko, a resourceful and fearless reporter for Russia’s Novaya Gazeta, whose editor-in-chief Dmitry Muratov won the Nobel prize last year.
Kostyuchenko was initially turned away from the border when she tried to cross from Poland on the first day of the war, but was let in after the editorial board made some phone calls. Since then, she has been in southern Ukraine. She has filed moving reports from Mykolaiv, which has been under intense Russian attack, and Kherson, currently occupied by Russian troops.
“Every day, I see the crimes my country is committing. Every day I see injured people, dead people, destroyed houses, I spoke in Kherson with people who lived through kidnappings,” she said, in a telephone interview from Mykolaiv.
“It’s morally difficult, but I think it would have been morally more difficult to sit in Moscow and follow it on internet,” she said.
Once inside Ukraine, Kostyuchenko said she did not have problems working with a Russian passport, once she had explained she was from Novaya Gazeta.
“The majority of people understand why I’m here, support what I’m doing and support me hugely,” she said.
Novaya Gazeta took the decision to follow Russian censorship laws, not using the word “war” or “occupation” but instead leaving blank spaces where the forbidden sections would go.
Kostyuchenko said she wrote her texts without censorship and they were then redacted by editors in consultations with lawyers.
“If the law was formulated to only put journalists in prison, inside the office we would publish everything, but the law is formulated so all the people associated with the text: proofreaders, internet managers and the accountants, could be responsible,” said Kostyuchenko.
“We had a meeting inside the editorial board. We had two options: close or to continue working in the regime of military censorship. More than 90% of readers voted for us to keep on working,” she said.
Many independent journalists have left Russia altogether, in fear of being jailed under the new laws. Albats said she had no plans to leave Moscow, but was “crying every day” over what had become of Russia, and the fact her country was waging a war of conquest.
“We are destroying another country and killing people. And this is unbearable. I understand that what I’m doing is basically almost useless. I do this because otherwise I’m going to hang myself,” she said.