War Resistance and Independent Journalism: Russian Journalists in Exile
This text is a translated and slightly edited version of a peer-reviewed article that first appeared in the journal Nordisk Østforum, 37, 2023: 87–95
On 31 March 2023, Georgii Chentemirov, a Russian exile journalist with The Barents Observer in Kirkenes, Norway, was declared foreign agent by the Russian Ministry of Justice, due to his independent reporting (Nilsen 2023). Chentemirov’s case is telling; Russian exile journalists have become key actors in the opposition against the Kremlin’s warfare in Ukraine, using fact-based and independent journalism to express war resistance. But are facts enough to fight down the Kremlin’s propaganda machinery?
Some of the most pronounced expressions of war resistance in Russian society are found among the Russian journalistic community in exile.
The hardening of state censorship and intensified repressions after 24 February 2022, provoked a wave of emigration and activism among Russian journalists. In Riga, Vilnius, Berlin, Amsterdam, Kirkenes and other European cities, Russian journalists in exile now use their profession to practice freedom of speech, to fight back Russian state censorship, disinformation, and war propaganda, and to express resistance towards the ongoing Russian warfare in Ukraine. This text discusses the consequences of the full-scale invasion of Ukraine and intensified repressive policies for Russian independent journalism, focusing on Russian-language media outlets in exile. How do Russian journalists define their professional identity in exile, and which strategies and tools do they apply when working from outside of Russia? The text argues that the two factors of regime opposition and exile status work to mutually reinforce each other, and moreover, that Russian journalists in exile define war resistance as an integral and legitimate part of their professional activity. In the new situation, regime opposition, war resistance, and journalistic professionalism have become one.
Repressions and ‘censorship through noise’
The labelling of Georgii Chentemirov as foreign agent is part of a pattern of escalating state repressions during the spring of 2023, introducing longer sentences for political opposition, and aiming at enforcing Russian law beyond the borders of the Russian Federation. Since president Vladimir Putin was accused of war crimes by The International Criminal Court in March this year, Russian authorities have severely raised sentences for ‘internal enemies’, while at the same time increasingly targeting Russians outside of Russia as well as foreign citizens in Russia. In late March, Wall Street Journal reporter Evan Gershkovich was arrested in Yekaterinburg and charged with espionage. Not since the days of the Cold War have the Kremlin raised such accusations against a foreign journalist (Kirby 2023). Simultaneously, opposition politician Vladimir Kara-Murza was sentenced to 25 years in prison for spreading so-called false information about the Russian warfare in Ukraine, while Alexei Moskalev, known as the father of a schoolgirl in the Tula region who made an anti-war drawing, was detained in Belarus. Moskalev was fleeing from a sentence due to his daughter’s drawing (Meduza 2023; BBC News Russkaya Sluzhba 2023). Another high-profiled opposition politician, historian Ilya Yashin, recently lost the appeal case against the state and now faces 8,5 years in prison, also on charges of spreading false information about the Russian armed forces (Trevelyan 2023).
The espionage charges against Evan Gershkovich have caused serious concern among Western media who still have correspondents in Russia; what new risks are their reporters facing in the months to come?
Interviewees are also increasingly put at risk after the State Duma adopted amendments to the Russian penal code on treason in April, opening up for life sentence verdicts for ‘passing on information to foreigners’ (Coalson 2023). In consequence, Russian journalists – both in exile and in Russia – must consider the growing menace from the authorities: How will independent and critical reporting affect their personal lives, and could their work pose a threat to their families? How can they keep on reporting in a truthful way about the developments in Russia without endangering interviewees?
The repressive policies of Russian authorities are nothing new. The law on so-called foreign agents was adopted in 2012, starting off a Kremlin policy line of using the legal system to fight down oppositional voices and control the Russian public sphere. The power of the Russian regime is to a great extent based on monopolizing information and ruling by a strategy of ‘censorship through noise’: On the one hand, a harsh legal framework of censorship, on the other hand, state-sponsored bombardment of the public with disinformation, conspiracy theories, half-truths and competing narratives (Pomerantsev 2019; cf. also Aro 2022). This information strategy has been accompanied by increasing use of coercive power and a strengthened position in society for the state security services. Since 2015, Russian authorities have moved from low-intensive repressions primarily aimed at deterring the population, to more direct and coercive repressions. This is followed by a narrative from the Kremlin claiming that political opposition and protest among the population is induced by Western countries to undermine Russia; that independent media in Russia is nothing but Western infiltration, and that free media poses a threat to Russian traditional values and even to the sovereignty of the Russian state (Flikke 2023, p. 150.; Flikke 2020; cf. also Staalesen 2021, p. 6-8). This narrative is present also in the Kremlin foreign policy concept published in March this year (Kremlin 2023).
The developments since 24 February 2022, represent a new phase. After the full-scale invasion of Ukraine, the Russian federal executive agency responsible for censoring and monitoring the media, Roskomnadzor, instructed all media to report about the warfare using only official Russian sources, and to name the warfare as a ‘special military operation’. Shortly after, the State Duma and the Federation Council passed new legislation criminalizing the spreading of ‘false information’ about the Russian armed forces. Such actions can now be sentenced with prison terms up to 15 years (Current Time/Radio Free Europe 2022). The introduction of this war censorship in Russia is reflected in the 2023 report of Reporters without borders; Russia is now ranked number 164 of 180 countries in terms of press freedom, dropping down from number 155 in 2022 (Reporters Without Borders 2023).
The growing repressions and the war censorship since late February 2022 have caused a wave of Russian journalists leaving their home country and establishing exile offices abroad.
However, the first journalist exiles appeared already in 2014, shortly after the Russian annexation of Crimea. The news outlet Meduza was established in Riga by Galina Timchenko, after she was removed from the position as editor of Lenta.ru in Russia due to disagreement with the owner of the news site, oligarch and Putin-ally Alexander Mamut, about the coverage of Ukraine (Beard, 2014). Meduza was set up with an explicit mission to produce journalism that could no longer be published in Russia. Timchenko was not alone; a number of news outlets were blocked by Roskomnadzor from March 2014, and independent editors were removed and replaced by Kremlin-friendly ones. Simultaneously, new legislation limiting foreign ownership in Russian media and regulating so-called distribution of information was adopted (Nygren 2023, s. 190).
In the Norwegian town of Kirkenes on the border with Russia in northernmost Europe, the online news outlet Barents Observer was targeted in early 2014.
Barents Observer publishes news from the Barents Region and the Arctic, including the Russian northern regions, in English and Russian. After Barents Observer published an op-ed criticizing Russia’s annexation of Crimea, the Russian General Consul in Kirkenes convinced the owners of the news outlet that this type of journalism was harmful to Norwegian-Russian relations. A conflict broke out between the owners and the journalists, who decided to leave and establish a new independent, journalist-owned news outlet, entitled The Independent Barents Observer. Two years later, editor Thomas Nilsen was denied entry to Russia. Since 2019 the news outlet has been blocked in Russia by Roskomnadzor. The journalists have found technical solutions to ensure the news outlet is still available to Russian readers. In the autumn of 2022, the team of journalists was enlarged with Russian exiles, strengthening Russian-language independent journalism in the border region between Norway and Russia. A main reason for the blocking by Roskomnadzor and the targeting by the General Consul was exactly this; that the news outlet reaches actively out to Russian readers by publishing independent journalism in Russian language (Aro 2022; cf. also Staalesen 2021; Staalesen & Nilsen 2016).
War resistance and independent journalism as a tool
Up until the full-scale Russian invasion of Ukraine, a limited, but persistent flora of independent media outlets were still working in Russia, with TV Dozhd, the radio channel Ekho Moskvy, and newspapers Novaya Gazeta and The Moscow Times as the most prominent ones. After the introduction of harsher censorship legislation in February, the last remaining independent news outlets were either blocked by Roskomnadzor or chose to close down due to security reasons (Reuters, 2022; Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty’s Russian Service, 2022; Meduza 2022). During the ensuing months, a number of outlets re-opened outside of Russia: TV Dozdh and Novaya Gazeta Europe established exile teams in Riga, whereas the far smaller 7x7 chose Vilnius (Matthews 2022; Shcherbakova 2022; BBC News 2022; 7x7 Gorizontal’naya Rossiya 2023). The Moscow Times moved headquarters to Amsterdam (NL#Times, 2022).
A key aim for the exile outlets is to reach Russian audiences with fact-based reporting, to counter the Kremlin’s censorship, propaganda, and disinformation.
The key tool is Russian-language independent journalism distributed to Russian speaking populations both inside and outside of Russia. Aiming for this, The Moscow Times established a Russian edition in 2020, only to be blocked by Roskomnadzor shortly after the full-scale invasion. The edition is still available to readers in Russia by way of VPN (The Moscow Times 2022). A lot of work has been put into finding technical solutions to breach the censorship wall set up by Roskomnadzor, and most of the exile outlets have dedicated pages and newsletters explaining to readers how to ensure access (cf. f.ex. Novaya Gazeta Europe 2023; Sever.Realii 2023). These technical challenges have facilitated a rapidly evolving digital knowledge among the exile journalists, and Roskomnadzor has so far not succeeded in keeping the independent media out of reach for readers in Russia. Instead, Russian authorities have turned up the volume of state-controlled media, in an attempt to overrun the exile media outlets. Simultaneously, the use of VPN in Russia has exploded (The Moscow Times 2022b).
After 24 February 2022, the independent media’s fight against state censorship and propaganda has evolved into an explicitly formulated war resistance. Whereas Meduza in 2014 simply stated that their main agenda was to publish facts, we now find statements about countering the war propaganda from the Kremlin by telling the truth about the war in Ukraine (Beard, 2014; Meduza, 2023b).
Truthful and free reporting about the war, as well as reports about war opposition within Russia have become the main strategies for voicing an anti-war position with the exile media.
When establishing Novaya Gazeta Europe, head editor Kirill Martynov wrote that the main task for the outlet is to fight for “the voice of anti-war Russia” (Shcherbakova 2022). Mikhail Fishman at TV Dozhd has stated as his personal goal to drag Russians out of the propaganda bubble and make them realize that they all share responsibility for the Russian warfare (Matthews 2022). Choosing Riga and Vilnius to set up exile outlets also reflects the aim of countering the Kremlin’s war propaganda: here, the Russian-speaking audience is large, and the narratives propagated by the Kremlin are directed exactly at these readers, in addition to the population in Russia. Thus, the anti-war message of the exile media is of particular importance here (Bathke 2022; Gessen 2023).
War resistance is also expressed by way of new sections and columns with the exile media. TV Dozhd features daily reports from Ukraine, whereas Novaya Gazeta Europe has a separate section dedicated to the war as well as a section entitled ‘Data’ featuring investigative reports of conditions at the front line, as well as of Russian politics, economics, and law-making in times of war (Novaya Gazeta Europe 2023b; Novaya Gazeta Europe 2023c). Sever.Realii, a media project under the Russian service of Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty covering the northern Russian regions, runs a new section entitled ‘The price of war’, which systematically covers the costs imposed upon Russian society due to the warfare (Sever.Realii 2023b). Another section is entitled ‘After the empire’ and includes future scenarios for Russia and discussions on possible paths toward true federalism and democratic political structures (Sever.Realii 2023c). Since the announcement of partial mobilization in September last year, a new field has appeared: Detailed reports informing readers on how Russian men can avoid mobilization and even regular conscription. By way of these reports, the exile media aims to counter the Russian warfare in Ukraine in a direct manner.
Activism as professionalism
This listing of exile media strategies and tools of war opposition could be continued. The developments since February 2022 show very clearly how the atrocities of war trigger anti-war activism among the exile journalists. However, activist attitudes have been characteristic of independent Russian journalism long before the full-scale invasion, expressed through opposition to the regime and through a continuous fight against state censorship and propaganda. In a somewhat longer perspective, however, it seems obvious that the new exile position in itself has produced a fiercer kind of activism – and it is tempting to conclude that that the exile status and regime opposition turned war resistance are mutually reinforcing each other (cf. Fomina 2019; Nygren 2023; Pomerantsev 2019, 2023; Stevnhøj 2023; Voronova et al. 2019). The increasingly coercive state repressions have also strengthened civic activism, - a development that indicates that the use of blunt force is not a sustainable strategy for Russian authorities in the long run (cf. Flikke 2023, p. 168 f.).
Moreover, the methods and tools employed by the exile journalists – using the Russian language, the freedom of speech, and social media to enlighten, raise awareness and mobilize opposition in Russia – poses a direct and acute threat as seen from the Kremlin.
Paradoxically, for Russian readers in search of independent, fact-based Russian-language journalism on the internet, the Roskomnadzor censorship and blocking have turned into a label of honor.
Side by side with the growing activism, we find a clearly formulated and persistent commitment to core principles of journalistic professionalism. The Russian exile media emphasize independent, fact-based and politically neutral reporting. Editorial guidelines include statements on avoiding economic ties, on protecting people in vulnerable situations, and on complying with internationally recognized principles on the professional code of ethics for journalists (cf. f.ex. TV Dozhd 2023; Sever.Realii 2023d). These principles make up a glaring contrast to the realities experienced by journalists working in Russian state-controlled media (Nygren 2023). The harsh political conditions for journalism in Russia make it difficult to say if the professional principles and anti-war activism promoted by the exile outlets will have an impact on the situation “at home”. The efficiency of the Kremlin’s censorship through noise has surprised even the most experienced Russian independent journalists, who expected that their reports from exile would raise political awareness and contribute to a more pronounced war opposition in the Russian public (Gessen 2023).
Due to the rapidly worsening security situation in Russia, the exile media outlets have increasingly applied what the head editor of Meduza calls proxy reporting; discreet gathering of information from anonymous sources, made by anonymous journalists in Russia, which is then put together in reports written by journalists and editors in exile (Gessen 2023). The question is how long this will remain a viable strategy.
The new legislation on treason and the escalation of repressions in the spring of 2023 make independent reporting an ever more dangerous endeavor.
Perhaps the key to building war resistance and win territory in the information war against the Kremlin lies not only in fact-based journalism, but also in a more basic and long-term building of belief in the Russian population that truth exists and that individuals can take on a constructive, positive role as politically active citizens. This is argued by the British, Soviet-born journalist Peter Pomerantsev. Pomerantsev, a child of Soviet dissidents, has spent his professional life studying the information strategies of the Kremlin. To him, it seems clear that a main challenge lies in countering the depoliticization of the Russian public, which he sees as a direct result of the Kremlin’s policies. According to Pomerantsev, most Russians believe that politics is all propaganda and lies, that there is no truth to be found among the manifold narratives circulating in the public sphere – and this is a main reason why they do not oppose the war. This is also why Volodomyr Zelensky speaks for deaf ears when he tries to address Russians in the Russian language, Pomerantsev argues. Pomerantsev draws a parallel to American politics, which are characterized by the same kind of basic distrust. What we are facing is not only the consequences of disinformation, but the structural disintegration of public space and a shared political conversation.
According to Pomerantsev, the solution lies in developing the sense of agency with individuals, to establish trust in politics on a societal level: «The Kremlin’s propaganda continuously undermines the sense of agency. [We have to find a way of] communication [that] can increase a sense of agency.” (Pomerantsev 2023).
In light of this, it seems the Russian exile community of journalists should define an even more ambitious goal for themselves. Fact-based reporting and solid, reliable knowledge, disseminated in the Russian language through the censorship wall put up by Roskomnadzor – these are the basic elements of their professional work in exile. This constitutes a highly demanding and increasingly dangerous endeavor in itself. In addition, the reporting must be framed in ways that counteract political inaction and distrust, and actively combats the information noise produced by the Kremlin.
Discussions on how to implement such endeavors are already underway. The exile journalists possess the necessary means and tools – the affinity and understanding of Russia in terms of language and culture. They thus hold the key to hone the message home to a Russian audience. For the time being, they also have channels, as the Russian censorship wall is not total. The question is how long the situation will allow for such ambitious and demanding work.
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