Russia is waging a war on independent journalists who dare to question or contradict the official government line - we must do more to support them
Six months ago, Dmitry Muratov was a journalist on top of the world. He was one of two journalists awarded the 2021 Nobel Peace Prize and the first Russian to receive this honour.
As editor of Russia’s leading independent newspaper, Novaya Gazeta, he is the country’s truth-teller in chief. His fearless journalism has exposed official corruption, electoral fraud and human rights violations.
Six of the newspaper’s journalists have been murdered because they wrote critical articles on Russian military operations in Chechnya and the Caucasus, including Anna Politkovskaya.
Muratov has criticised Russia’s annexation of Crimea in 2014 and the government’s use of military force, both in and outside Russia, so when the invasion of Ukraine was launched on February 24 he was confident in the power of strong, independent journalism to hold the Kremlin to account.
At the outset of the war, Novaya Gazeta published an edition in Russian and Ukrainian with the banner headline: “Russia is bombing Ukraine.”
Muratov said he would defy demands by Roskomnadzor, the state media watchdog, to self-censor. But within a few weeks, Novaya Gazeta, like other independent media voices, learned how easily ethical journalism can be blown away when the bullets start flying.
A new law was passed by the Russian parliament threatening jail for dissident journalists. Newsrooms were ordered to use only government sources and “official information” when covering the conflict. Newsrooms were told that in their reports on Ukraine, words like “attack”, “invasion”, and “war” were banned.
Still defiant, Muratov and other Russian journalists on March 28 organised a group interview of Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky. This interview was immediately banned by Roskomnadzor.
The next day, Muratov announced on Novaya Gazeta’s website: "We suspend the publication of the newspaper on our website, in social networks and in print media until the end of the ‘special operation on the territory of Ukraine’. There is no other option…it is a horrible and difficult decision."
Novaya Gazeta's announcement followed the closure of radio station Ekho Moskvy and TV Dozhd. Almost all of the independent journalism outlets across the media landscape were silenced.
Ethical journalism - based on truth-telling, independent verification, impartiality in reporting and free expression - was wiped out.
Now, the story of war in Ukraine is told almost entirely through the distorted filter of propaganda. Even social media have been curtailed; Facebook banned and Twitter restricted. Dissident journalists have either left the country to continue their reporting in exile or have been forced to take cover and remain silent at home.
In this situation, many ordinary Russians, shielded from uncomfortable truths by official media censorship and the war-mongering bias of state-controlled television have come round to believing that Putin is right, Ukraine is a fascist state and the West is laying siege to their country.
According to the New York Times, polls show that many Russians now accept Putin’s contention that their country is under siege from the West and had no choice but to attack. At the beginning of April it was reported that the respected Levada poll found 81 percent of Russians were supporting the war.
It is independent news media that have been particularly targeted and hit the hardest and who most need support
The Putin government has a superabundance of newspapers, radio and television networks and regional media outlets now at their disposal, many of them funded by local authorities and businesses with large non-media interests.
According to Wikipedia, Russia has around 330 television channels in total. Three channels have nationwide reach: Channel One, Rossiya TV and NTV. Both Channel One and Russia-1 are controlled by the government, while state-controlled energy giant Gazprom owns NTV.
Television propaganda relies not just on political spin coming from the Kremlin, but there is evidence of active generation of fake news. Some events reported on state TV outlets, for example, have relied on manufactured evidence - often photographic - according to the US-based RAND Corporation research group.
Coverage of the Ukraine invasion is sanitised. Unlike reporting of other Russian military campaigns, such as in Syria, viewers are not shown videos of fighter jets destroying their targets. This is a sign that Russian authorities are aware of internal unease with the conflict.
The news from the battle front has not been good, but the worst of it has been hidden from view. And where that is impossible - global outrage over the atrocities at Bucha, for example - the narrative has been altered to accuse Ukraine of faking the whole episode.
Zhanna Agalakova, a familiar face in Russian households from two decades of working as a foreign correspondent, announced she was leaving Channel One, the most popular government channel. Agalakova told reporters at a news conference in Paris with Reporters Without Borders that she could no longer be involved in the "lies" and "manipulation" of Russian state TV. "I want the people of Russia to hear me and learn what propaganda is and stop being zombified," she said.
She is not alone. Her colleague on Channel One, Marina Ovsyannikova, became a global sensation when she barged onto the set of its evening news holding a poster that read "No War". She was detained and fined by a court in Moscow and may yet face further prosecution, risking years in prison under the draconian new laws.
At other state outlets, journalists have quit including NTV and at RT, where one contributor told the Guardian that there had “been an exodus of staff”.
But many stay on. "Many journalists, producers or people who work in the media think like me," Agalakova told reporters in Paris. "It's easy to accuse them, to ask why they don't resign, don't protest. But those who stay have families, elderly parents, children, houses to pay for. They are hostages of the situation."
But it is independent news media that have been particularly targeted and hit the hardest and who most need support. “Propaganda is like radiation,” warned Muratov before he was silenced. “And it has touched many here.”
In the current climate it is hard to see what can be done to help them without making their situation even worse. But journalists elsewhere do need to tell their story and can make the issue of free speech, a return to truth-telling and the restoration of basic human rights a central pillar of strategies for peace and reconciliation.
Aidan White is President of the Ethical Journalism Network
The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Al Jazeera Journalism Review’s editorial stance