‘Independent Media Today, Of Course, Engages In Counter-Propaganda To Some Extent’
September 18, 2023
  • Tikhon Dzyadko

    Editor-in-chief of Dozhd TV

  • Xenia Loutchenko


Tikhon Dzyadko, editor-in-chief of Dozhd TV, talks about the challenges of working from abroad, explains why Dozhd remains a Russian channel, and claims that journalistic objectivity is a myth that was completely destroyed after Russia’s invasion of Ukraine.
Tikhon Dzyadko on air. September 2023. Source: YouTube
The original text in Russian was published in Colta. A shortened version is republished here with their permission.

After the start of the war, almost all the editorial offices of independent media left Russia within a matter of days. If an alien were to ask you why, how would you answer?

There are two answers – one that I would have given at that time, and another that emerged later, several months after.

I’ll start with the second one. I think that a special operation was carried out against independent publications, primarily in Moscow. From the first day, information was passed from mouth to mouth: “my colleague’s source said that they would arrest journalists from Dozhd and the BBC;” “my colleague’s source said that they would arrest for treason journalists who had ever worked in Ukraine.”

Everyone who decided to leave at that moment left. [Nevertheless] When crossing the border, no one had any problems.

From the first day [of the war] it was clear that the authorities wanted to limit the availability of information. So, I think that this was an absolutely deliberate spreading of panic.

On the other hand, a war had begun, an unjust, dishonest, unmotivated war. Therefore, due to the combination of these factors, on the evening of March 1, 2022, we, a large part of the Dozhd editorial staff, decided to leave.

Now, I understand, of course, that this is exactly what they wanted from us. It is another thing that I have no reason to believe that if we had shrugged it off and stayed, everything would have been fine and we would now be doing such an interview with you.

We would either have had to remain silent, though this would not have guaranteed anything either. Or, if we had continued to work, the development of events would have been predetermined: two days after our decision, criminal articles for discrediting the army and fakes were adopted.

Nowadays there is a lot of talk about the problem of leavers versus remainers. The point is that gradually these two ice floes are moving further and further away. Do you feel that your audience is also split into two parts and that you need to talk differently to each – both in terms of intonation and content?

As for audience gauges, before the war and now the Russian audience on our YouTube channel is still 65-70%. There are no noticeable changes.

But the fact that we are abroad, of course, raises questions that did not exist before, and every day they become more acute.
“When asked what our main challenges are, I always say: ‘how to get information out of there and how to get information back there’.”
The first challenge is much more serious. It is not safe to work in Russia, and we are aware of this. For example, we know that almost anyone who gives a comment to us from Russia is denounced [reported]. Not so long ago, when we were filming a report in Belgorod Region, a stringer cameraman was working for us; he rode in a car with some volunteer, and this volunteer turned him in to the police at the first checkpoint.

Your journalists can’t go to Russia, but they can’t go to Ukraine either? How do you do reporting from both countries, even though the report authors, your correspondents, are in Riga and Amsterdam?

Everything is done very simply. Thanks to the internet and social media, and thanks to the willingness of a large number of people, no matter what, to communicate with us both in Ukraine and in Russia. Thanks to the stringers, journalists and cameramen who continue to work anonymously and collaborate with Dozhd. I don’t remember a single case in these one and a half years when we were unable to get a picture and necessary comments.

But in each specific case there is a degree of our own responsibility. There are people who told me that they are ready to work for Dozhd in Russia – to receive a salary, to go on air saying: “hello, this is so-and-so, correspondent for Dozhd.” These are crazy people who say: “I don’t care. I won’t leave. I’ll go film for you.” But at that moment you think: “when he is serving his eight years in prison, you will know that you sent him there.” I categorically disagree with this.

We have no correspondents in Moscow. The vast majority of materials about Russia are made from Riga, Amsterdam or Tbilisi with the help of anonymous stringers and operators. A correspondent finds the main figures, investigates the story, makes arrangements, a stringer goes to the place and the correspondent asks questions by phone.

If you imagine it as a triangle, where one point is Russia and the other is Ukraine, then are you somewhere separate? Equidistant?

No, our main audience is Russia. In May, 63% of our viewers were from Russia – that’s 10 million people, a big number. We work mainly for them. In Ukraine, we have 1 million viewers. And we see ourselves as a Russian TV channel, despite where we are physically located.

Objectively, the most important things in the last almost a year and a half have been the war and its consequences, but we are trying to look at it through the eyes of Russians. The Russian audience has been stuck between two moral imperatives for more than a year now. One tells it: “get on your knees and ask for forgiveness, you are a Russian citizen, and you are responsible for the crimes of Putin and his entourage, even if you never voted for him and did not support him in any way.” The second imperative, from the other flank, says: “grab a rifle, sign up as a volunteer and go kill.”

The second imperative is obviously not us at all. However, it is very important in principle not to be captured by any imperatives.

People in Russia have the right to be afraid, to be apprehensive, to doubt, to have difficulty finding words, to use euphemisms. People in Russia are in a situation we are not in, and no matter how much we read social media, we cannot imagine what it is like to be in it.
“But the job of Dozhd is still to find a language that will allow us to remain on the same wavelength as the people who are there, in Russia.”
The story with “our guys” cannot be ignored (i.e. former Dozhd journalist Alexei Korostelev’s slip of the tongue about Russian draftees, after which Dozhd had its right to broadcast in Latvia and Lithuania revoked — Colta). It became a landmark for the entire journalistic community. How do you find the right approach here? On the one hand, Russian journalists are not Ukrainians, and attempting to self-identify with Ukrainians is, to put it mildly, not a good look. On the other hand, they are not Russians in the sense that we are on the same side of the border and the war as Ukrainians. On the third hand, there is the Western audience, which, of course, does not care about Russian TV channels, it does not watch them, but any public Russian person is a convenient target, who will do nicely as a defeated enemy, who is very easy, vulnerable prey. Not a single misstep will be forgiven. What conclusions did you draw from this story?

This would inevitably have happened after some time, if not with this phrase, then with another. Before this, we had had a case with the wording “our army,” said in an absolutely clear context: “our army is committing crimes.” Or in Latvia we were fined for a map where Crimea was part of Russia, which was an obvious technical error. The journalist did not check, and the material was broadcast like that.

We, of course, drew our own conclusions. And I wouldn’t say that they are very different from how we went about things before.

We declared on February 24 that we have a clear anti-war position, and that is exactly why we left and continue to work outside of Russia. But we do not believe that any Russian citizen is a priori a murderer, a criminal and an accomplice. In my opinion, this is a very slippery, dangerous slope. You can go further: is someone who has both a Russian and, for example, an Israeli passport, a 50% murderer? What about someone with three citizenships? And what about some Putin official who managed to obtain local citizenship somewhere in Cyprus through investment?

But we exist in a very sensitive environment, and there are many topics that need to be discussed in the editorial office. You cannot paint with big strokes. Like: “all Russians are slaves;” “all of them should be banned from entering certain countries.”

You have said several times that you have an ethics statement that determines the content of your work. Overall, nowadays there is great demand for a moral position; everyone seems to be constantly demanding a more radical formulation of it. But this, in theory, contradicts journalistic standards. Where does traditional journalistic impartiality end?

To be honest, I never believed in the impartiality and objectivity of journalism.

One person believes that it is permissible to bite off territory from another state, and the other that it is impermissible. And the viewer goes to watch news on this channel and not on another precisely because their positions converge.

Overall, it seems to me that objectivity is a fraud. And after February 24, this myth was completely destroyed.
“If you try to create a supposedly impartial picture, you will deceive the viewer.”
Ekaterina Kotrikadze, anchor of Dozhd’s show on global affairs, September 2023. Source: YouTube
At the end of the day, aren’t you engaged in counter-propaganda? You are opposing the propaganda narratives of Russian federal TV and other state media. But if there is no impartiality and objectivity, then aren’t you using the same methods, only with a different label?

I am absolutely convinced that independent media today, of course, engages in counter-propaganda to some extent. But I do not agree with the phrase “use the same methods.” Because our opponents lie, we don’t.

Can we call it propaganda when we are showing the audience that biting off pieces of someone else’s territory is unacceptable?

And we will not play the game: “Let us now give the position of Ukrainian Foreign Minister Kuleba and then seriously discuss the position of the Russian Foreign Ministry representative Zakharova, who will argue that there is some devious NATO plan to enslave Russia.” We know that there is no such plan, and we live with that.

Does the country you find yourself in – Georgia, Latvia or Netherlands – in any way affect your journalistic work? Or are you a Russian-speaking island and don’t care?

Yes, more like that. Any event, no matter in what country it occurs, we assess based on two parameters. Either it’s ‘wow,’ it’s just cool to watch, like the coronation of Charles III – it’s a historical event, it’s beautiful, a hundred world leaders go there. Or it’s something that you project onto your own experience. The viewer watches protests over pension reform in France and relates to them: what is going on with his pension? What is going on with protests here?

We do not have a separate file where we plan how we should talk about Latvian, Georgian or Dutch events.

Throughout the history of Dozhd, there has been high turnover. But in emigration, people are much more dependent on the editorial office, they have nowhere to go – everything is there: documents, the ability to pay for housing, everything depends on work. For example, potential employers may be in another country, but here the children have already gone to school and begun to learn the language. It turns out that employees turn into slaves and your responsibility as editor-in-chief when making personnel decisions becomes, it seems to me, completely exorbitant...

This coin has a third side: the editorial management is also hostage to some extent. If you are dissatisfied with someone – let’s say he is a slacker – then in a past life, in Moscow, we would sit down with him and say: “hey pal, listen, it was working before, but it isn’t anymore.” But here a huge number of “buts” arise: where will this person go? He won’t go back to Russia because it’s not safe. What about his children, his documents?

Overall, during this time, and more than a year has passed since we left, our relationships have become completely different than they were in Moscow. In our previous life, we communicated with each other much less. But we are in the circumstances we are in.

Is Dozhd making money? Can Russian media in exile potentially become profitable? And if we admit that Russian media cannot make money anymore either in emigration or in Russia, then how and why should it exist?

It seems to me that this question should be divided into two parts. Firstly: is Dozhd making money now? The simple answer is no. Does Dozhd plan to make money? Yes, and we are looking for ways to do that. Before the war, we were making money, though it was not much – the last two years before the war we were slightly above breakeven. Then everything that happened broke our business model. We are temporarily filling this gap with money from various organizations that support us.

But does this mean that we are changing because [now] we have sponsors? No, it does not. Not once did any of them make any demand, request or hint: “report this this way, and that that way.”

The second question, much more serious in my opinion, is: is there a need for Russian media operating outside Russia at all? The simple answer: there is. Regardless of when and how the war ends, Russia will not go anywhere. One hundred and forty million people will remain.
“And it is my immodest conviction that only Russian media can talk to the Russian audience – because they know it.”
Dozhd staff announces closure of their TV station, March 2022. Source: YouTube
We recently did a big report on the deportation of children from the occupied territories to Russia. And we set up a “black box” where we asked people from different regions to send us information about where and how children suddenly appear and what people know about it. And we received a huge number of responses. Then we investigated, confirmed, found things out and put together this whole story.

I am absolutely convinced that neither Western nor Ukrainian media would have received such a response. Because this audience and I speak the same language, we understand each other.

Russian media is needed to show people with an anti-war position remaining in Russia that they are not alone.

Do journalists feel like a community? Should colleagues publicly declare their solidarity and express common positions on political issues?

Yes. The community is not just the editorial office. It’s about trust. I understand that this may sound presumptuous, but people from Russia who are loyal to a particular media outlet, to some extent, delegate to it the right to speak on their behalf. And that’s why this solidarity is important.

And if we are talking specifically about the journalist guild, then there has never been such solidarity as now. The first watershed was the law on foreign agents. It was then that media outlets that previously could not sit at the same table began to talk to each other. It was very important for us when, after our broadcasting license was revoked, Meduza put out an open letter in support of Dozhd signed by dozens of journalists.

What is the main danger for you? What are you afraid of as the editor-in-chief of Dozhd?

I’m afraid that my dream of rapidly growing the audience to 30 million people will not happen. This will mean that I did not find the right approaches, did not find the right language, lost the right air.

How do you see yourself and the channel in three years? Where will you end up? I don’t mean geographically, but maybe even a geographical point. Three years later, Dozhd is...

I want to hope that in three years Dozhd is a Russian media that is working in Russia again. And that it maintains offices outside of Russia.

But if this does not happen due to political, military or other reasons, then I see Dozhd as a media that – despite all the obstacles from Russian regulatory, blocking and other repressive entities – can reach a huge audience in Russia, without losing the ability to hear and feel what is happening there. Essentially, I see Dozhd as the same thing, but better.
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