SOCIETY
Russian independent media:
Why they leave and why they stay
July 5, 2022
Sergey Parkhomenko
Journalist, radio host, following the liquidation of Echo of Moscow curator of own channels in Telegram and YouTube, organizer of civil society projects, senior advisor at the Kennan Institute
Putin's dictatorship has designed and built an almost perfect machine for destroying independent journalism in Russia, but Sergey Parkhomenko searches for and finds those whom Russian authorities can’t stop.
“Sometimes in the morning, as I’m getting ready to go into the editorial office, I think about how it’ll be if they show up with a search and an arrest warrant today,” Olga tells me. “They break the door, bust in, put us on the floor and start turning everything over. They yank and break open what doesn’t open right away, and they frisk us too. And I think: what would be better to wear, in case of a search. A skirt? Or just jeans? That way they look only in the pockets and don’t dig further. And then, it’s no good if they see that one buckle on my bra is broken – better to put on a new one. I don’t know how long I’ll have to sit in the cell in it before they allow a change of clothes to be passed through and I’ll be able to change. It should be new, yes, that’s safer. And jeans, of course.”
Olga Mutovina, 2020. Source: Facebook
The war in Ukraine on the shores of Baikal

Olga Mutovina is 44 years old, has three children – the eldest boy having just turned 19, i.e. conscription age – and lives in Irkutsk, the largest city in Russian East Siberia, right on the shores of the world-famous Lake Baikal. Olga manages a media project she founded two years ago called People of Baikal. She is a reporter and editor and has no previous experience as a manager. In fact, she had spent her entire career in the huge, ridiculous Irkutsk newspaper Vostochno-Sibirskaya Pravda, which miraculously has hung on since Soviet times.

Olga continues to work as a journalist in Russia – she isn’t in exile and not under arrest, her office hasn’t yet been searched. At least not as of the day I write this. Perhaps by the time of publication it will already matter what exactly Olga was wearing when she went into the editorial office that day.

On April 16, seven weeks after the Russian army invaded Ukraine and started a bloody full-fledged war, Olga received a Facebook message from an unknown reader. He wrote that due to technical problems, he could no longer access the People of Baikal website.

Olga had been awaiting these "technical problems" for a long time and knew where to look for an explanation. She went to the site of Roskomnadzor (the Russian federal agency that regulates communication networks, including the internet – it is in reality in charge of censorship), where, in a special reference section, she found the address of her site and the notice that it had blocked by decision of the Prosecutor General in accordance with Article 15.3 of the federal law “On Information.”

This article allows the authorities to block users from accessing sites that, in the view of the Prosecutor General and other law enforcement agencies, disseminate "information with calls for public disorder, extremist activity,” as well as “inaccurate socially significant information under the guise of reliable reports, creating the threat of harm to the life or health of citizens or property, the threat of large-scale violation of public order or public safety.”

Of course, neither Olga nor her colleagues received any prior warning or official notification from the prosecutor's office or any other government body about the site’s being blocked.
“Roskomnadzor never sends any warnings."
It doesn’t send the reasons behind its decisions either: not on its site or anywhere else can you find any explanation as to which of the texts of Olga and her friends served as the reason for shutting down People of Baikal.
Logo of Redkollegia award. Source: Wiki Commons
‘Even Yandex stopped showing us in searches’

“They just shut us off, that’s it,” says Olga. “In Russia, you can read us only with a VPN or some other way to bypass the block, like a special, cunning browser. And even Yandex (Russia’s largest search engine and a competitor of Google; see Russia.Post article on Yandex here - Russia.Post) has stopped showing us if you specifically try to find us there. We filed a lawsuit to challenge the block, of course. Yet in such cases, everyone always sues but no one ever wins – in Russia, the prosecutor's office and Roskomnadzor are always right…”

The creators of People of Baikal call their project an independent online journal. On the site is the shortest and simplest manifesto imaginable. Word for word it goes like this: “Schools and clinics, post offices and pharmacies are being closed in the villages. People are leaving for the cities. But many remain. They live without normal roads, sometimes without light and communications. And often there is no one to tell this story, as journalists simply don’t make it to these places. We describe life in the Siberian backwater.”

The editorial staff consists of four female journalists, all of whom live in Irkutsk: Elena and Karina, like Olga, are a little over forty, while Natalya is younger, having just turned 30. Anton, a photographer and photo editor, also works with them. That’s it. There isn’t anyone else.

They take very seriously, and formulate literally, the task they’ve set for themselves – to describe the life of people living around Baikal – a task that is, at first glance, very modest, involving some sort of particular professional modesty, but in fact requires special determination, perseverance and courage. Counting from Baikal, they actually specify where each story, along with the fate of each character, plays out: near the title of each of their reports is a figure – e.g. 140 km, 270 km, 560 km, 1,930 km – which represents the distance to the nearest shore of the lake, measured right on a map.

And the piercing, distinct feeling that permeates every story they tell, every character they describe, every conflict, every victory, every anecdote, every loss – this is the striking contrast between the grandiose majesty of Baikal, the world's largest freshwater lake, a one-of-a-kind miracle of nature, and the quiet, imperceptible to the casual observer flow of ordinary lives around the lake.

From the very first weeks of its work in the spring of 2020, People of Baikal attracted the attention of Redkollegia, the most authoritative and well-known independent media award in Russia today. It has been around for six years now, thanks to funding from Boris Zimin, the son of businessman, scientist and philanthropist Dmitri Zimin. (Disclaimer: Sergey Parkhomenko is a coordinator and jury member for the Redkollegia award and manages conferences and workshops under its auspices.)

Nearly every publication of People of Baikal invariably becomes a contender for the award, and each of the authors of the online journal has managed to receive it, and more than once.

Since the beginning of the war in Ukraine, the life of the people of Baikal, like the fate of People of Baikal, has been ruptured. Olga and her colleagues are sure that this rupture is something different – not the same as what is happening in the lives of people throughout the rest of Russia.

Military experts and political analysts realized at an early stage of Putin's war against Ukraine that the Russian invasion contingent was formed – from the standpoint of geography and nationality – in a rather specific way.
“The Kremlin fears anti-war protests in large urban centers, especially Moscow and St Petersburg, if too many coffins start to make their way back from the front."
The ideologists and practical organizers of the invasion reason that there is much less risk if the main “meat” thrown into the cauldron of aggression comes from the distant, poor non-Russian periphery of the country.

Tuva, Buryatia, Yakutia, Kalmykia, Chita Region, Krasnoyarsk Region, Irkutsk and Transbaikal – these are the areas that supplied the soldiers and officers from the very beginning of the war, and this remains the case to this day. They are more or less people of Baikal, people of the distant Russian provinces, from somewhere deep in the East, if you look at it from Moscow.

Russia’s eastern periphery as a source of manpower for the invading army

The last Redkollegia award received by Olga Mutovina and her colleagues was for the report “Everything here smells of the dead” about how soldiers who died in Ukraine are buried in Buryatia, a distant, backward and very poor region that surrounds Baikal from the south and east.

From the very first days of the war, this topic has been central for People of Baikal. Again and again they’ve written about how Russia’s eastern periphery is being used as a source of manpower for the invading army and how the dead sons of Baikal are being brought back from Ukraine to local towns and villages.

And one more thing:
“Exactly a month after the start of the war, they put up on the People of Baikal site a list, updated daily, of people from the regions surrounding the lake who died in the war."
The authors methodically and doggedly collect and publish all the information that they can find about everyone who is brought back to their native village or town in a zinc coffin or in a plastic bag – when only a few scraps of skin and fragments of bones remain.

No one has described this side of Putin's aggression like People of Baikal. No one has covered the horror of this war from here: it’s so far away but at the same time so close. A small independent publication in far-off Irkutsk, thousands of kilometers from the front line between Russian and Ukrainian troops, suddenly found itself in the middle of the action, as if the bombing and shelling were rattling the windows of its editorial office.

They are determined to continue writing about the war and about the people who are brought back to be buried around Baikal. This is precisely why the Russian Prosecutor General demanded that the online journal’s site be blocked and made sure that even Yandex would stop showing links to it. From the point of view of Putin's dictatorship, this is the very "information with calls for public disorder and extremist activity" and so on and so forth. That is why Olga and her colleagues think every morning about how to prepare for the search and arrest that one day inevitably awaits them.

Patriotic ‘foreign agents’ and ‘deliberately false’ truth

Olga Mutovina was welcomed as one of the most impressive speakers at the big conference of Russian independent media organized by Redkollegia in early June at a quiet resort in Montenegro. More than 100 representatives of Russian publications came to talk about how to live in this new era of war, brutal totalitarian repression and mass exodus.

There were representatives of well-known and authoritative metropolitan media like – now “liquidated” and blocked – TV Rain, Novaya Gazeta, Echo of Moscow. 
There were exiled journalists from investigative teams that in recent years had published exposés that were damning in their power and dizzying in their complexity, including ProektImportant Stories (IStories), Holod, Mediazona and Alexei Navalny's Anti-Corruption Foundation (FBK). There were analysts from reputable economic and political publications, as well as huge media corporations that operate in Russian and declared foreign agents, such as Meduza, The Bell, BBC and Radio Liberty.

Almost all the attendees were forced to hastily leave Russia and now continue their work scattered across Yerevan and Tbilisi, Istanbul, Riga and Vilnius, Berlin, Prague, Amsterdam…
“Just about a dozen people in this room continue to work in Russia. And when the conference ended, they went back home to work in Russia."
Independent journalism in Russia today is represented by small regional and city media, like the consortium of editorial offices outside Moscow and St Petersburg called 7x7. Horizontal RussiaTaiga.Info from Novosibirsk, the Krasnoyarsk TV company TVK, the Krestyanin publishing house in Rostov-on-Don, the Yuga.ru site in Krasnodar, the site for reports and features Takie Dela, which collaborates with several volunteer projects and charitable foundations. Plus a few more similarly scattered shreds of what was once a huge map of free speech in Russia. Just like People of Baikal.

The Russian totalitarian regime has built a sophisticated system for pressuring independent media over the twenty years of Putin's rule. There are almost no editorial offices outside the control of the authorities that haven’t been declared collective “foreign agents.” Inclusion in that Ministry of Justice register (done outside the courts and based solely on an arbitrary decision of an official or prosecutor, while appeal is impossible) means instant termination of all advertising contracts, refusal to be carried on cable networks and an almost guaranteed block of the website by Roskomnadzor.

Not to mention: total control over all the company's finances, immense pointless reporting on every ruble received or spent, denial of access to any official institutions or officials, no accreditation at any event connected with the state.
“For the particularly stubborn and insistent about their rights to collect and disseminate independent information, the totalitarian regime came up with the status of 'extremist'."
Any contract with a company labeled "extremist" – this could be an editorial office, as was the case with ProektIStories, Navalny’s FBK and others – is considered a criminal offense and punished at first with massive fines and then prison.

More than 100 journalists in Russia have already been designated "foreign agents" as individuals. The same obligations are imposed on them individually as on entire media organizations: any message on social networks, even a simple tweet or comment on Facebook, must be accompanied by a humiliating disclaimer about their “foreign agent” status, along with reporting, surveillance, restrictions on participating in public activity and now the threat of having property seized.

The Duma has passed new amendments to the legislation, definitively giving the state the right to arbitrarily declare its citizens “enemies of the people.” A “foreign agent” can now be deemed anyone “under foreign influence.” Officials will no longer need any grounds at all, no evidence, no material motives – it will be enough for a particular citizen to have the “wrong” political views and fail to demonstrate loyalty toward decisions of the government.
“Meanwhile, the online firewall has become just about total."
To block access to a site, nothing is needed other than an order from an official on the basis of a “signal” from any of the numerous special and law enforcement services: the FSB, National Guard, Prosecutor General, Investigative Committee, police section for “combatting extremism,” military security services – they are all vigilantly monitoring Russia’s “information space.”
Journalists of Dozhd, 2019. Source: Wiki Commons
False is what contradicts the official press release 

Yet the new criminal laws invented and put into force since the start of the war are the boldest and have been most actively applied. They threaten 5-15 years in prison for distributing “deliberately false information about the operations of Russia's armed forces and state bodies outside the country.”

Currently, dozens of such cases have already been launched, the first of which are rapidly approaching trial, with the suspects arrested and awaiting their fate in pre-trial detention. And “deliberately false” is considered any information that doesn’t correspond to the briefings of the official spokesman of the Russian Defense Ministry. 

Once again, slowly:
“Amid the war with Ukraine, Russian prosecutors deem false not what is inconsistent with reality but what contradicts the official army press release."
The most serious crime of this type is the very use of the word “war” in any publication or publicly available statement.

Russian independent media are leaving Russia. And the breakdown of “leavers” versus “remainers” observed at the Montenegro conference very much mirrors the real ratio in the Russian media space overall.

The “media in exile” are gradually learning to re-create themselves in a new place: journalists have sought and received legal status and work permits, gradually overcoming – thanks to the actions of the governments of several European countries (primarily Germany, Poland, Latvia and Lithuania) – the serious difficulties of what in the profession is bitterly known as the “visa paradox:” an ordinary Schengen visa has a term of 90 days, while the war has been going on for more than 120. It is gradually dawning on Europe that journalists, along with human rights and civil society activists, squeezed out of Russia by the Putin regime need a special, “professional” asylum so they can continue their work from outside the country.

Journalists are registering companies in new countries, equipping editorial offices and newsrooms, and most importantly looking for solutions to the most difficult and formidable problem discussed in Montenegro: how to build communication channels with their audience, how to establish and secure the flow of information to the reader, viewer, listener. YouTube remains one of the most widespread and stable conduits as the Russian authorities still don’t dare to block it (largely because they consider it a useful means of disseminating state propaganda for themselves). The traditional communication channels remain important as well: social networks, apps, websites.

“Ukraine needs Javelins, Russia needs VPNs!” said at the Montenegro conference Mikhail Klimarev, founder of the Internet Defense Society (OZI) and a leading Russian expert in media communications. The meaning of this slogan is simple: only the joint efforts of professional journalists and the consumers of their content can give a new lease on life to Russian independent media. Readers and viewers should gradually get used to doing everything they can to keep in contact with their sources of information, analysis and commentary.

Tools for getting around the firewall, as well as a certain perseverance and sophistication among both those who create content and those who consume it, are necessary.

“Traffic on our site has risen severalfold, while donations, which we had asked for on several crowdfunding platforms, increased twenty times,” Olga Mutovina wrote to me in response to a question about how People of Baikal has changed after Roskomnadzor cut off public access to them.

I ask Olga again: “Why are you still not leaving? What are you waiting for? Every day you risk..."

And she tells me: “We can't leave these stories here. We’ll never hear or collect anything like this anywhere else. We’ll never know what these people tell us today. We endlessly rush around our Baikal and see life as it has never been revealed to us before. How can you choose to leave? Let them drive us out of Russia by force.”

In the morning, she’ll think again about how to prepare for a search and arrest should her turn come today.
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