Al Jazeera Journalism Review

Russia outside
'They're lying to you': Russian state TV employee Marina Ovsyannikova - later arrested - protests on air, March 2022

Moscow’s journalistic lights are dimmed, but their story needs to be told

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

 

More Articles

When will this epidemic of dead and dying journalists come to an end?

Journalists are being targeted and killed in greater numbers than ever before. What will it take to get our leaders to act?

Nina Montagu-Smith
Nina Montagu-Smith Published on: 25 Jan, 2023
Has the media enabled a new age of scientific misinformation?

Social media and complex AI newsroom tools have produced a toxic environment in which dangerous misinformation is flourishing

Safina
Safina Nabi Published on: 23 Jan, 2023
‘Border jumpers’ and ‘spreaders of disease’ - how South African media incites racial hatred

The evidence that mass violence and vigilante killings have been sparked by the media in South Africa is undeniable

Danmore
Danmore Chuma Published on: 16 Jan, 2023
Julian Assange is no hero among journalists

A record number of journalists are languishing in prisons around the world, yet Assange is constantly held up as a poster boy for this type of injustice. There are far more deserving candidates

Nina Montagu-Smith
Nina Montagu-Smith Published on: 10 Jan, 2023
Is it time to ditch the word ‘fixer’?

A large part of the work associated with foreign correspondents is actually carried out by local journalists who are rarely credited - they work in the shadows

Ana
Ana P Santos Published on: 22 Dec, 2022
Morocco was the World Cup feel-good story we needed

Scenes of players frolicking on the pitch with their mothers were more than enough for me

Soraya Salam
Soraya Salam Published on: 19 Dec, 2022
In appreciation of sports journalists

The common perception of sports journalists as mere entertainment reporters is far from the full story

Nina Montagu-Smith
Nina Montagu-Smith Published on: 15 Dec, 2022
Sexual harassment in African newsrooms is a scourge on journalism

Well over half of women journalists in Africa have been subjected to sexual harassment, abuse or victimisation in news rooms. It’s time to crack down

Philip Obaji Jr
Philip Obaji Jr Published on: 12 Dec, 2022
Drone wars have removed our ability to report the horrors of conflict

What is the future for journalism in the ‘third drone age’? Full of manipulated news, most likely

Pauline Canham
Pauline Canham Published on: 8 Dec, 2022
America and Israel are partners in denial of justice for journalists 

Both countries have a disgraceful history of disregard for the rights of media staff who are the victims of violence, particularly in conflict zones

Aidan
Aidan White Published on: 27 Nov, 2022
On Zimbabwean journalists and American democracy

A Zimbabwean journalist invited by the US embassy in Harare to ‘monitor’ the US Midterms has been labelled a ‘Western spy’ by some people at home

Derick M
Derick Matsengarwodzi Published on: 14 Nov, 2022
Why Western media makes this football fan so uneasy

Criticism of Qatar in the lead up to the World Cup was always a given. But some of the hypocrisy on display is something else

Nina Montagu-Smith
Nina Montagu-Smith Published on: 27 Oct, 2022
The problem with foreign correspondents - wherever they may hail from

It’s good that the BBC recognises the value of not just sending white, British journalists to cover the internal affairs of other countries. But why send an Africa reporter to cover Pakistan?

Anam Hussain
Anam Hussain Published on: 25 Oct, 2022
Beware of trying to ‘cause’ the news to happen

How rumours and speculation about a refugee ‘Convoy of Light’ descending on the Greek border with Turkey were taken up by some members of the press - when it never actually happened

Ilya
Ilya U Topper Published on: 13 Oct, 2022
When leaders can't take a joke, we must make fun of them all the more

The BBC’s decision to censor satire in future political panel shows at the behest of the UK’s new prime minister shows it is hardly different to any state-controlled media organisation operating under authoritarian regimes

Nina Montagu-Smith
Nina Montagu-Smith Published on: 7 Sep, 2022
A masterclass in propaganda - political vloggers in the Philippines

‘Independent’ political vloggers and influencers are being expertly harnessed by the new Marcos Jr administration for its own ends

Ana
Ana P Santos Published on: 22 Aug, 2022
When covering Afghanistan, what matters is the people

One year after the Taliban seized control of the country, the media must focus its attentions on the mounting humanitarian crisis in Afghanistan; the people are the broken heart of this story

Soraya Salam
Soraya Salam Published on: 16 Aug, 2022
Nigeria - a model for a free African media?

Journalism under military governments in Africa is under threat, but journalists can learn from Nigerian media’s experience of standing up to people in power

Philip Obaji Jr
Philip Obaji Jr Published on: 18 Jul, 2022
Journalism needs clear standards when it comes to ‘deplatforming’ 

Currently, 'deplatforming' of people with views considered hateful is applied in a haphazard way. This just adds to the problem of hate speech

Abeer Ayyoub
Abeer Ayyoub Published on: 6 Jul, 2022
‘Fake news’ laws are killing journalists

Countries which have introduced ‘digital security’ laws in the name of combating fake news are also seeing a rise in harassment and even murders of journalists

Nina Montagu-Smith
Nina Montagu-Smith Published on: 27 Jun, 2022
Journalists are murdered when governments fail to ensure a free press

Over the past four years, everyone I've known who has tried to investigate the operations of mercenaries in Africa has either been killed or injured in attacks

Philip Obaji Jr
Philip Obaji Jr Published on: 12 Jun, 2022
On the ‘treachery’ of translators

The nature of a journalist-translator’s job forces one to become a messenger mediating between nations and cultures. Our writer reflects on the responsibilities this brings

headshot
Bahauddeen Alsyouf Published on: 5 Jun, 2022
If it’s clear who is funding them, community radio stations can transform lives 

Community radio has begun to flourish in Zimbabwe in recent years. But for stations to truly support the communities they serve, it is imperative that they are transparent about who owns them

Derick M
Derick Matsengarwodzi Published on: 29 May, 2022
International media has abandoned Afghanistan

The international community will be vital in helping Afghanistan to survive Taliban rule - but it has to start with a change of approach by Western media

Sayed Jalal
Sayed Jalal Shajjan Published on: 22 May, 2022