Through the eyes of Russian Journalists: the deplorable future of mass media

The future of journalism in my opinion is deplorable, until the change of the regime

On the 4th of March, Russian journalists, local mass media outlets, and foreign correspondents operating within the border of the Russian Federation were greeted with a law jeopardizing not only their careers but their safety. 

In the span of two days, the State Duma and Russian Federation Council introduced, reviewed, and passed a bill – that was shortly signed by Vladimir Putin – which single-handedly led to the criminalization of independent journalism.  

Since then, over 150 Russian journalists have left the country, according to a Russian independent media Agenstvo, several left-wing propaganda outlets have ceased operations, while others relocated to continue their journalistic duties abroad through the help of crowdfunding and VPNs. 

Formally known as law No.31-FZ and No.32-FZ, the Russian Fake News Law interdicts “public dissemination of knowingly false information about the use of the Armed Forces of the Russian Federation”. This law also establishes criminal liability for public actions aimed at discrediting the use of the RF Armed Forces, including imprisonment for up to 15 years. 

On the 22nd of March, the State Duma adopted amendments to the criminal and administrative codes, subjecting fines and prison terms to those disseminating information about the actions of Russia’s government bodies abroad

This wartime censorship slowly went into effect from the start of the invasion, with the Federal Service for Supervision of Communications, Information Technology and Mass Media, abbreviated as Roskomnadzor, sending out warnings to silence dissidents. 

On the 26th of February, Roskomnadzor ordered left-wing media outlets to take down information regarding the Russian military operations in Ukraine and only use state-approved sources. In the case of resistance, the outlets would be subject to harsh penalties including operational restrictions and fines up to 5 million rubles. 

In their press release, Roskomnadzor also wrote that “materials in which the ongoing operation [in Ukraine] is called an attack, invasion, or a declaration of war” will be considered false information; this became the precedent for any future coverage of the current events, warning journalists on the lawful consequences of such terminology usage. 

In late February, Roskomnadzor began to slow down traffic on Meta owned social media platforms, supporting the Russian Federal Security Service’s notion of them being extremist organizations disseminating inaccurate information, notably Instagram and Facebook. By the 14th of March, both social media platforms were officially blocked.

The situation in Ukraine is escalating, yet the majority of the Russian population is still not being exposed to balanced and reliable reports. 

Expressing one’s raw feelings and thoughts can cost them their freedom and so journalists are faced with the choice to either report pro-government news, sit still and self-censor, or leave the country entirely.

I have contacted three journalists working and studying in Moscow to get a deeper understanding of what it’s like to operate under the right-wing regime.

MOSCOW, RUSSIA – FEBRUARY 24, 2022: The police detain a demonstrator who is holding up a sign with a message reading “No To War With Ukraine” during an unsanctioned anti-war protest in Pushkin Square in central Moscow. Early on 24 February, Russia’s President Putin announced his decision to launch a special military operation after considering requests from the leaders of the Donetsk People’s Republic and Lugansk People’s Republic. Sergei Savostyanov/TASS,Image: 664703571, License: Rights-managed, Restrictions: , Model Release: no, Credit line: Sergei Savostyanov / TASS / Forum

*The sources have requested to remain anonymous due to personal safety concerns. 

Journalist working at a large Moscow-based TV station:

Q. Is there anything that you are prohibited from posting on your personal social media accounts?

“At the very beginning, we were told that we could not post the Ukrainian flag or any call to action against Russia. Then, the [Fake News] Law was enforced, prohibiting us from saying words like ‘war’ and any anti-Russian and war statements; we now cannot write “for peace”, “no to war”, “we are for Ukraine”, “live Ukraine” … but this relevant to the whole of Russia and not just my news channel. 

On [our] channel everyone already understands – without having to be told – that we will simply be imprisoned if we publish such things on our private social media accounts or within the frameworks of the news channel. 

However, one can still post the letter ‘Z’* everywhere, you can say that “Russia is superb, Russia is awesome, Vladimir Putin is great. Everything that is anti-propaganda, or propaganda towards the left side is not allowed.”   

*The letter ‘Z’ is one of the symbols painted on military vehicles of the Russian Armed Forces involved in the 2022 Russian invasion of Ukraine, speculatively used in order to distinguish allies or enemy forces. 

The symbol has since grown and become a widespread symbol of the Russian right-wing propaganda, supporting the government and its invasion. 

Q. Is there content that you are prohibited from covering? 

“… I’m working on such a news channel – which is probably one of few in Russia – that isn’t left-wing or right-wing propaganda; so on one hand we are a governmental telechannel, on the other hand, we also have private sponsors. 

This is interesting because we cannot lean towards heavy Putin- and Z-propaganda – we do not do this, we are not Russia Today*. But we also can’t write too much about the losses in Ukraine, just like Meduza** – who are actually involved in left-wing propaganda, and exaggerate about the special operations – not in the sense of facts, obviously, facts are facts, but in the sense of using decorative words…”

“… we are given clear directions, we write facts, we do not use any decorative words at all, nothing like “horrible losses” or “victorious defeat of Russia”, we don’t do anything of this sort. 

We just write facts, something like “an institution has stated […]”. This may not necessarily be true but at least it was reported by an institution, which is an official source that we have to publish, we just have to publish it.”

*Russia Today is a state-controlled international television network funded by the Russian government; RT, amongst other RF news channels, was banned across the EU due to the concern of disseminating disinformation about Russia’s invasion of Ukraine.

**Meduza is an independent news website writing about Russia and the former Soviet Union; they were one of the mass medias blocked in Russia and had their newsroom staff leave the country

Q. How do you feel about this situation as a journalist? What is your vision for journalism in Russia? 

“How do I feel about it? Well, badly, what else can I say? It’s sad, horrible, and scary. 

In regards to my vision of journalism in Russia, I’ll say this: it’s dead, journalism is practically dead. Basically all the liberal mass media, even those that weren’t left-wing propaganda, have been labelled as foreign agents or extremist organizations, even some individual journalists. 

It’s scary when you’re living in a country that doesn’t have freedom of speech, that doesn’t have freedom of feather – figuratively speaking. 

You can’t write about everything, you are only to write about what the government permits, since there’s a law prohibiting writing about – as I previously mentioned – peace, war, etc. 

It’s scary and heartbreaking that in the journalistic profession is that you either paint the letter ‘Z’ everywhere – including on your forehead – and scream that Putin is great, that we aren’t killing anyone and that it’s all the Ukrainians, or you simply sit still. 

There are very few mass media outlets that are neutral. It’s very difficult to express your stance when everyone is being imprisoned for everything.”

Editor at a Russian Business Radio Station:

Q. Is the atmosphere at the workplace tense?

“I wouldn’t say that today the atmosphere in the editorial office is tense. Moreso, we have returned to the pre-war work schedule, meaning that the amount of hours has remained the same, exactly like one and a half months ago; there is rarely any overtime – the atmosphere is okay. 

We got used to the new reality, the only thing is that if before the stories and news materials were diverse, now it’s obvious what the majority of the air time is dedicated to. 

Of course, the first few days were horrible, we all worked 16 hours – it was hell… but should it be said that we had a hard time when the neighbouring country has it a lot worse?”

Q. How do you feel about this situation as a journalist? What is your vision for journalism in Russia? 

Of course, I feel negatively [towards the situation]. Being a person who studied in quite a liberal university and grew up in a free family, I look at all this as a nightmare. What is worse is that my journalist colleagues and friends remain unemployed, which is horrible, and some are leaving the country saying that they won’t ever return here for personal reasons. 

How do I feel about this situation? It’s a monstrosity. It’s a monstrosity. 

We – journalists – are victims of what is happening, not even mentioning those people – and I will keep making this remark – who are currently in the echolocation of the military actions. 

The future of journalism in my opinion is deplorable, until the change of the regime. Journalism in the sense that we were taught in university is currently impossible, and I think it won’t be possible in the next decade.”

“… We live in a time where judging fairly and independently is very difficult because we are not only becoming the witnesses but also accomplices to the current events; the history of such global events can only the judged after a long time, once we get to see the consequences, and then better understand the reasons that prompted someone to do this.”

People attend an anti-war protest, after Russian President Vladimir Putin authorized a military operation in eastern Ukraine, in Saint Petersburg, Russia, February 24, 2022. Banners read: “I am ashamed to be Russian” and “No to war”,Image: 664703836, License: Rights-managed, Restrictions: , Model Release: no, Credit line: ANTON VAGANOV / Reuters / Forum
Political journalism student at a Moscow university:

Q. What are your thoughts on the new censorship regulations?

“Now journalists in Russia are under great pressure from all sides – from foreign influence, from the authorities, from the people…”

“… Indeed, many journalists who work for [state approved] Russian channels have been urged to refrain from commenting on the military operations in Ukraine. But it seems to me that this is quite natural as they work for a specific leadership, which has the right to dictate to them what can be published and cannot be – both from the point of view of simple ethics and from the point of view of … censorship. Although I wouldn’t call it that.”

У Расеі, якая атакавала Украіну 24 лютага, таксама адбываюцца антываенныя несанкцыянаваныя мітынгі. Выходзіць і выказваць сваю пазіцыю заклікала праваабаронца Марына Ліцвіновіч, пасля чаго яе затрымалі. На дадзены момант вядома пра мінімум 852 затрыманых. Масква, Расея. 24 лютага 2022 года. Фота: Рыгор Малец

Russian journalists prompt the public to stay up to date with the current news agenda and listen to both political sides, such as Channel One Russia and TV Rain, in order to ingest a pluralism of opinions and compose a sober stance on the situation. 

(Featured Image: EPA PHOTO)

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