Russia’s Journalism Is in Exile and Needs Support
BY MAXIM TRUDOLYUBOV
For the past twenty years we, the members of the Russian independent media community, have been doing our best to keep our country informed. To the best of our abilities we have been providing honest and independent coverage of events at home and abroad. Recently we have been working tirelessly to inform the public about the heinous war that Russia has unleashed against Ukraine and about the Russian military’s crimes against Ukraine’s civilian population.
Yet it is with deep sadness and dismay that we must concede that our work in Russia is no longer possible. This is happening at a moment when journalism is most needed. Right now, free speech has been effectively criminalized in our country.
Ever since Putin’s ascent to power, his government has attacked independent media outlets. Russian journalists have been beaten, murdered, imprisoned. The Kremlin’s propaganda regime has silenced speech, crushed or coopted independent media outlets, and cultivated a whole ecosystem of loyal mouthpieces. Moscow has used these means to foment discord and spread disinformation not only in Russia but around the world. Putin’s assaults on truth and on those who speak it set the stage for this war.
In truly Orwellian fashion, President Vladimir Putin’s government has now made it illegal for all those Russians who remain within the country’s borders to call this conflict a war and the invasion an invasion. The Kremlin’s rubberstamp parliament recently passed a bill punishing anyone who dares speak the truth about Russia’s illegal and criminal military action. For spreading such “falsehoods,” the new law envisions a maximum of fifteen years in prison. Putin’s officials are doing everything they can to prevent Russian citizens from accessing independent news outlets and transnational social media, such as Facebook or Twitter.
Unable to pursue their profession, most Russian independent journalists have fled the country. They are now stranded, dispersed throughout the world. Many are on temporary tourist visas and are lacking documentation or rights.
This is a terrible situation not just for those affected but for the international media community as a whole. Now more than ever, we need truthful and reliable information both coming from Russia and being made available to Russian speakers everywhere.
Putin’s reign in Russia had two ominous beginnings. As soon as he became Boris Yeltsin's anointed successor he initiated the Second Chechen War and seized control of Russia’s most prominent media outlets at the time, television stations. From the very start, he needed both a war and a controllable picture of it.
The world’s public space is one arena where Putin’s government began waging war on freedom long before Russia invaded Ukraine. Putin’s fight against independent journalists has not been limited to persecution at home. Our international colleagues have been murdered, denied entry into the country, and deported.
For more than two decades now, Russian independent media have been struggling to push back against our government’s floods of lies and falsehoods. We are convinced that it was Putin’s systematic assaults on truth and on those who speak it that have paved the way for this war against Ukraine.
Humbled and dismayed as we are during this horrible time, we firmly believe that Russia’s journalistic voices are needed now more than ever, and that independent truthful journalism from Russia can and will be a force for peace.
We need and want to do everything in our power to open the eyes of Russian society to the atrocities of the war. Surveys have shown that many Russians who support their government’s unlawful actions do so out of ignorance and confusion. It is clear that Russians need more information, not less, as they are now effectively cut off from all independent and external media sources. Disrupting this vacuum should be our priority if we are to win the war against Putin’s lavishly funded and well-organized propaganda-machine, which has poisoned so many minds at home and abroad.
Right now, to do this crucially important work, journalists from Russia need an official refugee status to keep them from being prosecuted at home. For many years we have observed the regime, cultivated our sources, and honed our skills under immense pressure and in great personal danger. Journalists need to be able to work freely. They will take care of the rest themselves.
Funding may be needed for journalists who have found themselves in grave straits. Most such aid will, hopefully, come from Russians who oppose the war and are free to act. One thing that free Russians cannot do is create the legal grounds for journalists to remain outside a country that has killed, imprisoned, and harassed them for years. They also need technical means to reach their fellow citizens, who discover they are living behind a new iron curtain.
This is a call to foreign services of the free world to give some thought to declaring a refugee provision for independent Russian journalists ousted from their home country. It is not the most pressing issue right now, yet solving it will bring peace one step closer.
Here’s how the international community can help. Governments can provide Russian journalists with special professional refugee status, including work documents. Individuals and foundations can donate directly to independent outlets. Universities and other institutions can expand fellowship programs for Russian journalists. Nongovernmental organizations can seek ways to offer Russians free access to virtual private networks, to help independent media reach their audience.
During this time of war against Ukraine, our hearts go out to all Ukrainians. They should receive every available assistance and support, and our utmost compassion. Calling for support and aid to Russians is a much harder cause to defend today. Nonetheless, the fate of Russia’s independent journalists demands attention, not least because they form the sharp end of the wedge tearing at the curtain of lies the Kremlin has erected to support its bellicosities. Please consider supporting them.
The opinions expressed in this article are those solely of the authors and do not reflect the views of the Kennan Institute.
About the Author
Maxim Trudolyubov is a Senior Fellow at the Kennan Institute and the Editor-at-Large of Meduza. Mr. Trudolyubov was the editorial page editor of Vedomosti between 2003 and 2015. He has been a contributing opinion writer for The International New York Times since the fall of 2013. Mr. Trudolyubov writes The Russia File blog for the Kennan Institute and oversees special publications.Read More
The Kennan Institute is the premier U.S. center for advanced research on Russia and Eurasia and the oldest and largest regional program at the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars. The Kennan Institute is committed to improving American understanding of Russia, Ukraine, Central Asia, the Caucasus, and the surrounding region though research and exchange. Read more