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Independent online reporting is on the line in Russia

Demonstrator in Moscow
In March 2019, thousands of people took to the streets of Moscow again to protest against the clampdown on free speech (this picture was taken in 2017) | Photo (detail): Mladen Antonov/AFP/Getty Images

Russia is increasingly clamping down on free speech. And yet, despite a raft of new gag laws, a diverse independent media scene is persevering – mainly online.

By Tamina Kutscher

Independent media in Russia investigate and report on highly sensitive stories such as who poisoned former Russian-UK double agent Sergei Skripal or corruption at the highest levels of government. Instead of spoon-feeding state propaganda to the masses, they supply worthwhile information and high-calibre journalism to a critically-minded public. Although this sector pales beside the huge sway of state television, which reaches 98 per cent of all Russian households, the independent media scene is nonetheless very diverse.
Russia’s non-governmental media can be roughly broken down into three groups: On the one hand, there are news outlets whose content hardly differs from that of their state-run counterparts. Then there are outlets like the Echo of Moscow, a radio station that provides by and large independent reporting even though it is majority-owned by Gazprom-Media, which has close ties to the government.
And last but not least, there is the independent media scene, which is diverse, critical, and predominantly online. Some of the established independent media, such as Novaya Gazeta, a critical and investigative newspaper founded in 1993, have both print and online editions. Many others, e.g. Batenka, went straight to the web. Colta.ru, a sort of feuilleton written chiefly by people in culture and the arts, got started through crowdfunding and has likewise been available only on the web since day one. Some online regional media also have nationwide appeal, such as 7 x 7, which is based in the Komi Republic, or Znak in Yekaterinburg. And then there are NGO portals, on whose painstaking investigative work many journalists rely: a case in point is the online civil rights blog OWD-Info’s coverage of the arrests at the 2019 mass protests in Moscow.
These independent media have a relatively small reach, however. According to a survey by the Levada polling institute, a mere six percent of the Russian population regularly access media that include critical contributions. “Unfortunately, the new online channels are nowhere near as influential as television,” concedes human rights lawyer Damir Gainutdinov. “On other hand, that’s why they have a relatively large amount of freedom.”
Gainutdinov is one of about 50 lawyers who have joined forces in Agora, a human rights NGO that provides legal assistance when websites are blocked, for example, or when activists, bloggers or journalists are physically attacked. Agora also brings cases before the European Court of Human Rights. “These online media get censored all the time,” says Gainutdinov. “They’re always being ordered to delete or rewrite articles and receiving threats that the site will be blocked.” Last summer, for instance, Batenka was ordered by Roskomnadzor, the Russian federal media regulator, to reword several articles on drug abuse and suicide.

Vague legislation

So it comes as little surprise that the Russian Internet is anything but a haven of free speech: Roskomnadzor has plenty of different ways to put the screws on the media. Last spring, for example, the Russian legislature extended the scope of two existing media laws to include the Internet: one against so-called “fake news” and the other against so-called “hate speech”. These statutes are so vaguely worded that “infringements” are easy to find, whereupon Roskomnadzor can block “infringing” sites without further ado.
Since 2017, moreover, media can be stigmatized as “foreign agents”. In theory, they need only have received some money from abroad. To be sure, only foreign media have been affected so far, including Radio Svoboda (Radio Liberty) and Golos Ameriki (Voice of America). But this law puts a formidable obstacle in the way of independent media, which, after all, get most of their funding from foreign organizations. So now they have to forego that funding so as not to jeopardize their very existence.
In late November 2019 the Duma (lower house of Russian parliament) passed a bill, after the third reading and without a single dissenting vote, stipulating that individuals, too, may be classified as “foreign agents”. Putin signed it into law in December. The new legislation is so broadly worded that, in principle, anyone who publicly reposts content from “foreign agent media” and also receives money from abroad – even from relatives – may be deemed a “foreign agent”. The Duma deputies say the new law is a response to corresponding US legislation. Employees of blacklisted “foreign agent media” now have serious cause for concern.
Leonid Levin, one of the drafters of the law, declared that people who write about sports or music have nothing to fear – and that Russian bloggers certainly don’t either. But such ostensibly reassuring statements are not legally binding, and this wouldn’t be the first vaguely phrased media law to be applied selectively and arbitrarily, and to cause widespread anxiety and self-censorship as a result.
To escape from the crackdown, some independent Russian media are going abroad. In 2014, Galina Timchenko, editor-in-chief of the successful independent website Lenta.ru, was cautioned against “spreading extremist content” after an interview with one of the leaders of the Right Sector, a Ukrainian far-right nationalist party and paramilitary movement. The Russian authorities can shut down a site after two warnings. So Timchenko fled to Riga, Latvia, along with a number of the editorial staff, and went back online as Meduza, which is now one of the most successful online media in the Russian language. Meduza has an investigative department in Moscow, but no office of its own there. “The fact that Meduza is based in Riga protects us against having our editorial offices potentially raided and trashed,” explains investigative department chief Alexei Kovalev.
For a long time, international social media and platforms like Telegram and YouTube seemed safe, far enough away from the clutches of the Russian state. They rapidly gained popularity and served as a mouthpiece for a critical Russian public. Blogger Yury Dud gained fame for his cheeky interviews of Russian public figures. And millions have seen his video-reportages on officially taboo or restricted subjects such as Stalin’s Gulag labour camps in Siberian Kolyma (over 17.6 million views on YouTube as per October 2019).
Russian opposition leader Alexei Navalny, described by some as “Russia’s best investigative journalist who is not a journalist at all”, posts videos about Russian corruption on YouTube. In 2017, he and his Anti-Corruption Foundation revealed the sources of ex-president Dmitry Medvedev’s ill-gotten riches, sparking nationwide protests against corruption. 

Punishing online criticism of state and church

But the Russian state is increasingly clamping down on these platforms, e.g. by intimidating viewers: in 2017, 411 viewers were prosecuted, in many cases for “liking” or sharing content critical of Russian policies on Ukraine or Syria or of the Russian Orthodox Church.
In November 2019, the Duma passed a law to fine Internet companies like Facebook or Twitter up to 18 million roubles (roughly €255,000) if they refuse to store users’ information on Russian servers. “The next step will be to impose heavy fines for other ‘violations’,” forecasts Damir Gainutdinov, “such as failing to remove prohibited content or divulge user information.”
Such penalties, he adds, are always a signal hat the existing mechanisms are not sufficient to compel international platforms to cooperate fully with the government. “That’s why there’s a new law to isolate the Runet,” says Gainutdinov. Despite nationwide protests that drew thousands to the streets again last spring, the law took effect on 1 November 2019. The official spin is that it’s necessary, in view of US sanctions, to prevent a blockade of the Russian Internet. Actually, it gives the authorities a number of new tools with which to control and block Internet access: among other things, it forces providers to cooperate with the state.
The human rights organization Reporters Without Borders, which recently published a report on Internet Censorship and Surveillance in Russia, is concerned about these new efforts to isolate Russia: “These are clearly scare tactics in the making,” warns press officer Ulrike Gruska, “even if it’s not yet clear whether the government’s plans are technically feasible at all.” And yet, despite this whole barrage of threats and fetters on free speech, independent media and journalists in Russia are still making the most of what freedoms remain – at least for the time being.
The Goethe-Institut joined forces with the independent portal Colta.ru in the project “The Earth Is Flat – How to Read Media”. Designed mainly for young people, this information and education project is also for media professionals, teachers and anyone who wants to gain a better understanding of the media.