The Censor’s Curtain Falls on Russia

Photo: The logo of Russia's state communications regulator, Roskomnadzor, is reflected in a laptop screen in this picture illustration taken February 12, 2019. Credit: REUTERS/Maxim Shemetov.
Photo: The logo of Russia's state communications regulator, Roskomnadzor, is reflected in a laptop screen in this picture illustration taken February 12, 2019. Credit: REUTERS/Maxim Shemetov.

After a long and difficult year for the last vestiges of a free media in Russia, the Kremlin has taken a leap towards an authoritarian blackout.

From now on, only information from “official Russian sources” is allowed to be published.

Russia’s communications watchdog Roskomnadzor (RKN) blocked access to more than six different media outlets on Monday, including Russian investigative outlet The New Times, student newspaper Doxa, and two Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty (RFE/RL) subsidiaries. The situation worsened markedly on March 1, when the prominent liberal radio station Ekho Moskvy (Echo of Moscow) and independent television channel Dozhd (TV Rain) were shut down on the basis of a claim that they had been spreading “deliberately false information” about Russia’s invasion of Ukraine.

The Russian prosecutor general’s office ordered the move, accusing the outlets of a “purposeful and systematic” posting of “information calling for extremist activity” as well as “violence” and spreading “deliberately false information about the actions of Russian military personnel.” The sudden shutdown took many unsuspecting listeners by surprise.

“My aunt Sveta in Moscow said she was listening to Ekho Moskvy when it was turned off a few minutes ago. She thought it was a technical error,” writer Keith Gessen posted. “They were on the air and then suddenly all she heard was a hissing sound.” Ekho Moskvy declared shortly after the announcement that it would, however, continue broadcasting on YouTube — whatever the cost.

“In Kyiv, grandad bombed the TV tower, and in Russia, he shut off the radio station ‘Echo of Moscow’,” one Ekho Moskvy employee stated. “Yes, we were deprived of the opportunity to speak the truth via radio or write it online (it was blocked). But we will work for you on YouTube until our studio is also bombed.”

The station was closed on March 2. “Good morning! Yesterday, when the Prosecutor General’s Office blocked our broadcast and website, Google synchronously shut down our YouTube channel in Europe due to our connection to Gazprom [the station’s biggest shareholder, now heavily sanctioned],” Editor-in-Chief Alexei Venediktov wrote on Telegram. Google later restored the station on YouTube, but Ekho decided on March 3 that it was going into liquidation.

“Censorship has been officially introduced in Russia,” read a statement from the widely respected Riga-based outlet Meduza on Wednesday. “Censorship in Russia is prohibited by the Constitution. Even in the version that was adopted so that Vladimir Putin could rule Russia as a monarch.”

While Ekho Moskvy has not up until this point been subjected to any specific, direct acts of censorship, in 2017, deputy editor Tatyana Felgenhauer, was stabbed in the neck. In 2014, general director, Yurii Fedutinov was dismissed after 20 years at the channel with his position subsequently going to someone more Putin-regime-friendly.

Dozhd has faced bigger problems. Since emerging as an independent channel in 2008, it has repeatedly covered protests against Putin’s Russia, and was designated a “foreign agent” in August, along with Meduza and RFE/RL. The channel’s story was recently immortalized in a new documentary F@ck this Job, about a woman coming into a decent tranche of money, deciding to launch her own television channel, and losing everything 12 years later.

The Committee to Protect Journalists described the latest restrictions as blatant censorship. “Russian authorities’ restricting of social media platforms and independent media outlets is clear censorship and undermines the free flow of information,” said a statement from CPJ Program Director Carlos Martinez de la Serna on March 1. “Authorities must allow Echo of Moscow, Dozhd TV, and all other independent outlets to report freely, and should cease hampering access to Facebook and Twitter.”

Reporters Without Borders (RSF) also spoke out about how the crackdowns had prompted other media outlets to self-censor. “Media outlets deleted content that was not to the Kremlin’s liking because they feared that their websites could be blocked or they could be fined up to 5 million rubles [about $47,000],” it noted.

It’s not just domestic news organizations – and indeed, any individual posting about the invasion online from Russia – that are suffering, but journalists working with international outlets, especially those with dual citizenship. One posted online early March 2 that they are no longer allowed to publish stories under their own name anymore “for my own safety” while rumors are flying of others arranging a swift departure from Russia.

Meanwhile, many international and domestic staff at Kremlin propaganda outlets are leaving, saying they are unable to justify the Kremlin line any longer. Whether Russia will soon have any independent media left at all, is becoming very doubtful.

Aliide Naylor is the author of ‘The Shadow in the East' (Bloomsbury, 2020). She lived in Russia for several years and is now based between London and the Baltic states, working as a journalist, editor and translator.

 


Photo: The logo of Russia's state communications regulator, Roskomnadzor, is reflected in a laptop screen in this picture illustration taken February 12, 2019. Credit: REUTERS/Maxim Shemetov.

March 3, 2022