The Wartime Death of Russia’s Last Free Media
Novaya Gazeta was the only major independent Russian media to continue reporting for an entire month after the start of the war with Ukraine.
On March 28, Novaya Gazeta, headed by Nobel Peace Prize laureate Dmitry Muratov, ceased operations, at least until the end of the conflict. This marks the end of an era of relatively free media in Post-Soviet Russia, although this freedom has diminished considerably in recent years. It also signals that the Kremlin no longer cares about pretending that there is any kind of media diversity in the country.
Other important Russian media had already announced their closure, had been forced to close their doors or moved to operate beyond Russian borders.
Novaya Gazeta’s investigations into high-level corruption, human rights abuses in Chechnya and the murder of Putin critics such as Boris Nemtsov have come at a heavy cost: six of its journalists have been killed for their work. Among them were famous investigative journalists including Anna Politkovskayawho was killed in October 2016 for reporting on atrocities in war-torn Chechnya.
Just four weeks before Novaya Gazeta’s March 3 announcement, the radio station Echo of Moscow firm. Founded in 1991 as a pioneer of the democratic press in Russia, the channel was for many years the main voice of the opposition.
He was also hated by nationalists and conservatives. The popularity and success of Echo of Moscow was partly due to its approach – inviting a wide variety of speakers, from liberal-minded opposition activists to far-right Russian nationalists.
During drinking parties with other media elites and the Moscow good world he regularly vaunted how close he was to many in the Kremlin. Venediktov was confident that as long as Putin was in power, he would continue to operate the radio station.
In early March, however, radio station managers voted to shut down the station after it was attacked by state censor Roskomnadzor for its war coverage, and his website was blocked. On March 8, the FM frequency of Echo of Moscow was pass at state-sponsored Radio Sputnik, run by one of the best propagandistsRT editor-in-chief Margarita Simonyan.
On the same day that Echo of Moscow closed, the only independent television channel TV Rain also announced its closure. Established in 2010 amid a period of liberalization under President Dmitry Medvedev, TV Rain has survived enormous pressure.
In 2014, the channel aired a program about whether the siege of Leningrad from 1941 to 1944 justified the large number of casualties, and whether it would have been better to surrender. There was rumors that Putin was offended by a channel that dared to raise this issue.
Subsequently, under pressure from the Kremlin, all major cable companies refused to carry TV Rain’s programs and advertisers canceled their contracts. The channel was forced to use only online streaming. Despite this, the channel attracted millions of viewers in Russia and abroad on YouTube even after the Kremlin called it “foreign agent” in August 2021.
On March 3, the day the Russian Duma (parliament) and the Federal Council adopted a law on “fake news”, the violation of which is now punishable by 15 years in prison. TV Rain closed and many TV Rain hosts and journalists fled the country.
Russians who want to access independent news outlets, all of which are now censored, must now use encrypted Telegram chats or virtual private networks (VPNs).
Telegram was launched in 2013 and quickly became popular in Russia, largely due to its double encryption. In certain authoritarian countries (like Iran or Russia), however, its high level of encryption has made Telegram popular.
Several years ago, the Kremlin realized the power of Telegram channels – the one-way broadcast of unverified user-generated content that essentially functions as a DIY news agency. One can share thoughts, pictures or news, including disinformation. Russian authorities have poured millions into filling it with paid bloggers, domestic policy leakers and bots to create a sense of support for the pro-Kremlin line.
In the coming months, propagandists will do their best to blame the West for the deteriorating economic situation using tactics that have been tested in the last years. Some will buy it, some won’t.
Most independent journalists will try to continue to investigate the regime’s crimes. They will work abroad, in the Baltic States, in the South Caucasus and in Central Europe, where Russian media groups already exist.
They will likely have reporters inside Russia who will share the news anonymously – for their safety. Journalists will need to continue to master technology to find and deliver information, in Russian and English, to their audiences around the world.