Can Russian independent journalism survive the war? | Press | DW | 05.08.2022
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Can Russian independent journalism survive the war?

Founded in 2014, the Riga-based news website Meduza is the only major independent Russian media outlet that continues to report on the war in Ukraine. Its co-founder Ivan Kolpakov contributed this essay to Weltzeit.

Shortly after the Russian invasion of Ukraine began, Meduza evacuated a third of its editorial staff from Russia, more than 20 people. In just a few days, our editors and journalists, who lived in various Russian cities, had to pack their bags, get cats and dogs chipped, get their partners to agree to their departure, say goodbye to friends and parents - and to their former lives.  

By that point, Meduzxa had gone into 24/7 mode, though we had never been able to afford it before - due to a lack of resources. Despite the evacuation, work in the newsroom did not stop for a minute. But as difficult as it was, it seems to us that the problems Meduza has faced pale in comparison with what the staff of many other Russian publications has been going through these days.  

We launched Meduza in 2014 in Riga, the capital of Latvia. We decided to do media in exile because we did not believe that the situation in Russia could change for the better. Almost all of Meduza's journalists and editors had experienced pressure from the authorities. Our publications were shut down and editorial offices were dispersed; we and our colleagues were fired and persecuted for political reasons. We were shocked by the annexation of Crimea and the Donbass war - and crushed by the emergence of a "Crimean majority" in the country that fervently supported the "return" of the peninsula to Russia. 

We were sure that our site would be blocked someday - most likely soon - and that we would inevitably have to evacuate reporters from Russia, if we still had them there. That is why we launched Meduza first of all as a mobile app and only then as a website (the app is almost impossible to block), and why we immediately began to build a multiplatform infrastructure, which is difficult for the authorities to deal with. The editors initially prepared for the worst, and eight years later this strategy has helped us survive - at least until now.  

Russia is apparently losing the war in Ukraine. But it has won the war against its own independent journalists inside the country. This war began immediately after Putin became president. For 20 years, the state has been pushing the quality press to the margins of the market. First, the government took full control over television (presumably, the key reason for this was the critical reporting by television journalists on the Kursk submarine disaster, during which Putin looked like a helpless and weak leader). Then the owners and editors-in-chief of major newspapers and Internet publications were replaced with loyalists or unfit people (often both together). We Russian journalists were boiled like frogs - slowly increasing the fire under the cauldron.  

However, even after 2014, when the space in which independent Russian media operated began to look more like a ghetto, journalists in Russia continued to launch notable projects. Mediazona, which analyzes the state of the law enforcement system; Wonderzine, which has made the feminist agenda part of the media mainstream; the teams around Yuri Dudy, Katerina Gordeeva, and other journalists forming alternative television on YouTube; OVD-Info, which helps people involved in protest actions; Project, Important Stories, and The Insider, which investigates corruption and political murders. The list could go on and on. The existence of these projects seemed puzzling to many observers abroad: it seemed that authoritarianism had finally taken hold in Russia, so how could a truly independent press function in these conditions? 

Vitality and ingenuity have become the main characteristics of independent journalism in Russia. A new generation of media projects refused to contact the authorities; they stopped pretending to believe in the rules of the game proposed by the state, and editors and journalists themselves learned to work in accordance with absurd laws, while remaining principled professionals able to defend their position. On the eve of the invasion, there was a tiny but very interesting independent media market in Russia.  

A perfect example of this vitality was the authorities' unprecedented campaign against independent media last year, when the most important media outlets in Russia were declared "foreign agents" in turn; Meduza was its first target. Despite this heavy discriminatory status, in the end only one publication was shut down - the rest continued to resist and survived (and what was shut down was later relaunched under a new name). As for Meduza, immediately after we were declared a "foreign agent" we lost almost all of our advertisers (business in Russia has always tried unsuccessfully to remain "out of politics"), but as a result we ran one of the most successful crowdfunding campaigns in the country's history. We were literally saved by our readers.  

Nevertheless, by now the process of destroying independent journalism has come to an end, and one might say quite successfully for the Kremlin. Immediately after the start of the military invasion, the authorities introduced military censorship: as is well known, even the word "war" is forbidden in Russia (but it is even more dangerous to speak out in support of peace). A law on fakes was passed that outlawed any honest reporting on the war in Ukraine. Tens of thousands of journalists are at risk of criminal prosecution and heavy prison sentences. Some independent media outlets have closed or suspended operations; all others have been blocked. Organizations with any resources evacuated their employees. Thousands of journalists fled the country without any support - and without much hope for a secure future. 

Meduza survived. It was easier for us than for other publications to get people out of Russia: we have been working in Europe for eight years now, and migration of employees is commonplace for us (although, of course, the evacuation of a third of journalists and editors in just a few days was a test of strength). Despite the blockage, we continue to be read in Russia. First of all, our app knows how to bypass it. Meduza has already been blocked in Kazakhstan and Uzbekistan, and these events have allowed us to accumulate positive experiences of "life after death”. Since the war began, hundreds of thousands of people not only downloaded our app, but also subscribed to our other platforms, such as our Telegram Channel. Finally, Meduza is a social and political publication with the largest young audience in Russia. Half of our readers are under the age of 35. This means that many of them are well-versed in technology and, for example, had already installed a VPN before the invasion began.  

At the same time, Western sanctions have been a heavy blow to Meduza and many other media, political and civic organizations created by Russians (this is not an attempt to evaluate their effectiveness in terms of fighting Putin's regime, but simply a statement of fact: we are collateral damage). In particular, the disconnection of banks from SWIFT paralyzed our crowdfunding campaign. We lost more than 33,000 regular donators from Russia - the people who ensured our stable existence, because monthly payments are the key component of any crowdfunding campaign.  

Since the invasion began, we have completely refocused our crowdfunding campaign on the West. Meduza has reached out to people in other countries - primarily in Europe and North America - to take the place of Russians, who can no longer support us financially. Journalism is a universal value. The events now taking place in Ukraine and Russia are an important reminder of how fragile it is. It takes the efforts of people around the world to protect it. The truth is, it has never been easier. You can simply send money to publications that need it (even a small but regular payment can be a very valuable contribution to support independent journalism). You can write about these organizations in your publications or blogs. Or just tell your friends about them on Twitter or Facebook. Every action leads to results. We've seen this firsthand. 

The example of Meduza shows that independent journalism can exist even when it is completely banned. No doubt Russia, if Putin survives this war, will continue to fight a free Internet - in particular by banning VPNs - but we will also find new solutions to deliver information to readers. After all, there is email. As we like to repeat, e-mail will work as long as there is internet in Russia (whether Russia will be cut off from the internet is a separate and debatable issue; personally, I have great doubts that this is feasible). In particular, this is why we are now investing a lot of effort in the creation of mailing lists.  

There are other serious challenges facing independent media working for the Russian audience. For example, Meduza no longer has a full-time staff in Russia. Before the war, we worked there under surreal conditions: after years of difficult and unpleasant negotiations, our correspondents were finally able to obtain accreditation from the Ministry of Foreign Affairs - and became "foreign journalists" in their own country. This status, however, allowed them to practice journalism openly and without fear of prosecution. Now we have to rely solely on freelancers (if we are not talking about politics), or partisan reporters (if we are talking about reporting on war and political events). We have reason to believe that this network will grow wider and, over time, its effectiveness will increase - because we have spent years learning how to work in the most adverse conditions.  

There is another important challenge that seems important to outline. Many people think that the way propaganda works is that television lies and people believe it. The reality, as usual, is more complicated than that. Of course, people who lived in the Soviet Union (and their children too) know that "central TV" - as it was called in the USSR - is not to be trusted. This is why, even now, viewers in Russia do not trust television. It is obvious to them (or they guess) that the news they are shown is a lie. The problem is that many of them don’t trust the independent media either. And the Western press is deemed even less trustworthy, along with Russian journalists working in exile, because they are regarded as "traitors" by some.   

A crisis of trust in relations with the audience is experienced by journalistic organizations all over the world. But the situation is especially dire in countries where the authorities - either directly or through businessmen close to them - control key media outlets. This is, of course, not only about the Russian Federation or Belarus, but also about Hungary, Serbia, Turkey, and many other countries. The unobvious result of the propaganda in these countries is that people in principle stop believing anything or anyone. "We will never know the whole truth" is a very popular idea in Russia; it is the one that Russian propaganda has been spreading in recent years in the domestic market in the first place.  

Will we, independent Russian journalists, be able to maintain or regain the trust of our readers? Especially given the fact that we are being physically cut off from them through blockades and being forced out of the country? This is a serious and painful issue (and it would be wrong to think of it as a technological one - although we will soon have to face many challenges in delivering uncensored content to people living in Russia). At Meduza, we try to find an answer to it every day. Telling people the truth about the war in Ukraine is not enough - when readers are not ready to accept this truth, or simply do not believe it exists.  

Journalists who continue (or plan to) work for audiences living in Russia, I strongly believe, need to remember that our readers are not people who sit in a cozy chair and read a newspaper to which they can doze off. Our readers are people in trouble (even if they themselves are responsible for what happens to them). We can't turn a blind eye to that. That means we have to give them more than just news. They need empathy and support. And hope - more than ever. 

Ivan Kolpakov is editor-in-chief and cofounder of the news website Meduza. Founded in 2014 by Galina Timchenko, Meduza is the only major independent Russian media outlet that continues to report on the war in Ukraine without censorship, and still has a large audience inside Russia (despite the fact that its website is blocked in Russia).  

Weltzeit is published by DW and is available to read digitally. The latest title "Special journalistic operation: War in Europe" covers food insecurity, censorship, frontline reporting, espionage, press freedom, human rights and much more.