Russian independent journalism in exile: In search of relevance and resilience
August 12, 2022
  • Olga Dovbysh
    Postdoctoral researcher, University of  Helsinki 
  • Elena Rodina
    PhD, independent researcher
After Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, many independent media outlets relocated abroad en masse. Facing the threat of fines and arrests, hundreds of journalists left the country. Olga Dovbysh and Elena Rodina asked journalists what they think about their future in exile.
Radio Free Europe/ Radio Liberty Newsroom in Munich, 1994. Source: Wiki Commons
In the last few months, the Russian government has significantly tightened control over the media sphere, the new measures including amendments to the “fake news” law and the law on foreign agents, as well as the mass blocking of independent media and social media platforms.

As a result, the media sphere in Russia has been sterilized, deprived of alternative positions and opinions. Some outlets have stopped reporting on the war altogether, turning to “neutral” topics like lifestyle or hyperlocal news. Others continue their efforts to discuss the war by using Aesopian language and writing between the lines. Still, a large number of journalists and outlets have chosen to leave Russia and continue their work, rapidly forming an entire, new community of Russian media in exile.

“Having left, you can do something useful”

Fleeing the country became a viable decision for many media professionals in order to avoid persecution and carry on their profession. Foreign media like the Russian service of the BBC and Radio Svoboda have relocated their entire newsrooms abroad, landing in Lithuania, Latvia, Armenia, Georgia and Turkey, some of the most popular destinations for Russian professionals who left their country following the invasion of Ukraine.

There are no exact statistics on the number of media professionals who have fled the country, but rough estimates indicate about several hundred of people. “Going to prison, in my view, means complete disappearance. You cease to exist as a professional and as a person... And having left, you can at least do something useful. That’s why I’ve left,” explains Alesya Marakhovskya, editor of the data department at iStories (Important Stories) and a “foreign agent” since August 2021.

Even in the current grim circumstances, Russian journalists in exile share an understanding that solutions and forms of independent journalism will be found. The main question is what the resilient models for independent journalism in exile are.

Nikolai (all names used in this article have been changed), the editor of a news outlet whose whole team left Russia and re-established their main office in exile, says that the technological and social realities open some avenues for continuing journalistic activities from abroad.

“Our big advantage is that Russia is starting to close only now… so there is a large layer of civil society that remains inside [the country] and wants change,” according to Nikolai. “Given the availability of the internet, information will leak out, and there will be opportunities to verify it for a long time to come; it would be very hard to turn [Russia] into North Korea quickly… we won’t have Soviet-level isolation.”

Audience matters

Despite growing the Russian (and Russian-language) diaspora, media professionals still consider Russians inside the country their target audience. Nikolai explains: “I really hope that we will be able to remain an outlet about Russia and for Russia in the first place. Immigrants are an important part of our readers, but we really don’t want to become an immigrant outlet that each month loses more of its understanding of what is going on in Russia and what perspectives are significant inside of Russia.”
The painful questions are who the audience is and how big it is.

There is no exact data about the audience for independent media. According to Denis Volkov, director of the Levada Center, before the invasion it was about 7-8%, and a bit higher if we consider not only professional media but also blogs. As for the makeup of this audience, “there are no surprises here,” says Volkov. “It is, of course, people who are younger, but not the youngest, 30-35-40 years old, an active audience, which had already been interested in politics. It is, of course, urban. Primarily from the large cities.” Volkov believes the “semi-elite activist layer” represents the core of the loyal audience.
According to Volkov, since the invasion the Russian audience of these media has decreased. Firstly, many media were blocked, which inevitably resulted in audience loss. He explains: “When the platform changes – for instance, the Novaya Gazeta website stopped working, and the new website of Novaya Gazeta Europe started instead, this results in audience reduction… So a change of platform means an instant crash [of audience]. No matter how popular you are… it is impossible to simply transfer the old audience to the new platform.”

Secondly, part of the audience has left Russia, hence they can’t be measured by surveys conducted within the country. It is also hard to measure the audience from Russia using VPN to access the independent media in exile that are blocked in the country.

Audience trust is another sensitive point for the future of independent media in exile. In the Soviet days, Western radio stations, such as Voice of America, Deutsche Welle and BBC, were regarded as sources of alternative information by many people in the USSR. By the end of the 1970s, more than half of the Soviet urban population listened to foreign broadcasting more or less regularly. Such a level of trust of voices from abroad is inconceivable in today’s Russia.
"Volkov claims that the level of trust toward Russian TV has rapidly increased after the invasion, contrary to the general trend of declining TV consumption and trust that Levada observed for the last decade."
Simultaneously, trust in the internet has declined. Volkov says that respondents claim there are many fakes online against Russia, “hence the popularity of the view that everything should be banned, blocked, not allowed to be broadcast.” Some parts of the Russian audience might consider exiled independent media as those who represent the opinion of the enemy.

Therefore, finding and sustaining loyal audiences is essential for journalism in exile. At the same time, journalists must tackle another important challenge – the necessity to change the form of their work in order to adapt to the new conditions.
Logo of Holod media. Source: VK
Working around new obstacles

“We will lose the genre of social reportage,” says Alexei, a Russian correspondent of a foreign media outlet who left Russia after the invasion. He is confident that journalism in exile can successfully exist but believes that it will need to give up certain things, like social reportage.

Masha, a freelance journalist and human rights activist from Russia, left the country to relocate to Georgia almost a year before the invasion. She agrees that some types of journalism look impossible, though other genres could develop even more.

“Data analytics, I think, is the most promising thing,” she explains. “Those who learned to analyze open-source data will perhaps be the most objective [journalists] among those in exile. That’s why I am thinking that the next ‘hole’ that the Russian authorities will try to plug will be that [open-source] data. They will try to hide it from all these systems of data analysis… One needs to write programs, analyze the data while it’s still there… soon it might be shut down one way or another.”

In the situation when experts may feel reluctant to give comments to a “media outlet in exile,” data might become the most reliable source of valuable information. Existing examples like iStories and Proekt Media demonstrate how data can still be a source for quality investigative journalism with a focus on Russia and for Russia but done from abroad.

In the absence of actual reporting and with the scarcity of “inside” sources, journalism in exile risks overreliance on “talking heads,” moving from actual journalism into “opinion journalism.”

The resulting bias could be twofold. Media professionals themselves might prioritize the voices of those whose views are closer to their own – for instance, intellectuals and experts in exile, while the latter could able be more readily available to provide comments. In addition, speakers from inside Russia might be reluctant to comment for exiled media, fearing persecution by the state or pressure from their employer (for instance, if a speaker is affiliated with a research institution or university). Plus, the experts in Russia who might agree to provide comments would be prone to self-censorship due to the risks, which could also make their expertise more limited.

For those reporting from abroad, access to first-hand information is becoming a big challenge. One solution could be “guerilla,” оr anonymous, journalism, where reporters don’t use their real names or affiliations.

“I’d rely on guerilla journalism – if people can publish under pseudonyms, they can help us,” suggests Nikolai. “I hope that these people would stay [in Russia] and would be able to do this for a long time and be in relative safety. It’d be harder to do, but we would build up some “guerilla networks” for sure. It could be anonymous reporters from inside the system, or people who are just afraid of saying or writing something openly.” However, it remains unclear to what extent media outlets will be able to protect their partners on the ground.

Digital solutions might help with data gathering. One such solution is crowdsourcing, relying on readers to send in tips and information.
"Some popular Telegram channels have already established bots allowing readers to send information anonymously. Crowdsourcing ensures grassroots voices and opinions but creates the issue of reliability."
While fact-checking would be a challenge, anonymous journalists would likely face yet another issue. Journalistic accreditation, a tool that opens access to official meetings, press conferences and the like, will not be available to them. Neither would a “press vest,” which typically protects a reporter from being detained while covering protests.

Financing anonymous journalism is already becoming another challenge. Transfers to Russian banks from abroad are impossible now because of sanctions. Moreover, getting financing from abroad risks the “foreign agent” designation.

Local journalism is probably most at risk. Even prior to the invasion, local journalists were under more pressure than their colleagues in Moscow or other large urban centers, but the war has made local independent journalism practically impossible. Among the 18 journalists and editors who are imprisoned in Russia today because of their professional activities, 15 are from regional media. Meanwhile, operating from abroad is not an option for local media, whose key quality is proximity.

People of Baikal (Sergey Parkhomenko wrote about People of Baikal on Russia.Post) has been blocked in Russia, and people are now afraid to talk to them,” says Oleg, a Russian journalist who left Russia a year prior to the invasionbecause the outlet he worked for was forced to close. “But they [journalists] also face higher risks – and by comparison, those working from regional towns, it [the situation there] is much worse and scarier, and it is much harder to work. Meduza, Mediazona, they are doing well, they are known. And the others – they won’t do as well… It looks like news from the regions won’t get through to us.”
Tikhon Dzyadko in TV Rain's studio in Riga, 2022. Source: Youtube
Concerns about security and relevance

At the moment, Russian journalists, regardless of their profession or reasons for leaving the country, are not entitled to a simplified procedure for getting visas or residence permits in the EU or in other countries. This means that the journalists who fled Russia have no clear prospects even for the near term.

“You can’t say that we are really welcome here [abroad],” explains Oleg. “There’s no certainty [about what to do next]. Some people received visas, but for three months only, and what can one do in three months?”

When a media company relocates en masse, it makes employees even more dependent on the employer and can restrict journalistic independence. If a journalist fled Russia by herself, meanwhile, it creates additional difficulties with finding a job and earning a living.

Emotional pressure is another less discussed challenge. While incomparable with the suffering and emotional trauma of the Ukrainian people, it still affects the sustainability of journalism in exile.

Finally, there’s the issue of funding. Even before the invasion, media outlets working from abroad were struggling to establish a stable financial model. Western foundations, advertising and crowdfunding were the main sources of income. At the moment, advertising and crowdfunding from Russia are hardly available because of the ban on bank transactions, as well as the blocking of websites in Russia and the status of “foreign agents” for the majority of media in exile. The audience in other countries isn’t big enough to generate enough revenue. Donor funding from various foundations is becoming a significant part of a sustainable model for media initiatives. However, only few (e.g. Repost) publicly name their donors.

Journalists in exile are concerned about keeping a clear and unbiased understanding of developments back in Russia. “I wouldn’t say that it would be marginalization [of Russian journalism abroad], but losing touch with the agenda is, unfortunately, inevitable,” says Masha.

Another risk is that of independent, neutral reporting being replaced by anti-regime propaganda: “The biggest danger is to lose focus and to live relying on the idea of some mythologized Russia. But we are in a situation when we cannot hire people to work full-time inside Russia because of safety concerns,” says Nikolai.

The idea of losing relevance once in exile is shared by many in the journalism community for a variety of reasons that aren’t necessarily rooted in facts: There are also discussions, explains Alexei, between those who left and those who stayed – the former demonize the situation back home, while the latter are in doubt, but are trying to justify to themselves why they can’t leave. In this sense, “the myth of losing one’s relevance is convenient.”

Volkov points out that many journalists working in Russia “didn’t have an adequate assessment of the situation [in Russia]. However, that didn’t stop them from being on the same wavelength with their audience.” Many Russian journalists, Volkov says, may have a distorted understanding of their readers. Therefore, the location of a media outlet could be a secondary issue compared to their agenda: “For instance, Novaya Gazeta Europe publishes a lot about Russia, but some [Russian] media outlets that have been operating from abroad for a while publish more about Ukraine [than Russia]... I’d suggest that the Russian reader might be more interested in Russian affairs. A shift of focus is quite understandable if you stay [outside Russia].”

There are many uncertainties regarding the sustainability of Russian exiled media and their ability to stay relevant with their audiences in Russia without becoming pro-Western propaganda mouthpieces that lack an understanding of real life in Russia. Still, the sheer quantity of new media initiatives that have already launched or are currently in the planning stages provides at least some hope that Russian independent journalism in exile will survive.

Here is a far-from-complete list of some media projects working from abroad.
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