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Russia’s Latest Media Crackdown Is Its Most Oppressive One Yet

Putin sits at a desk and holds a small box.
Russian President Vladimir Putin holds a meeting at the Kremlin in Moscow on Tuesday. Mikhail Klimentyev/Sputnik/AFP via Getty Images

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Meduza is an independent Russian news website, born from the ashes of a media outlet that crumbled under Kremlin pressure. In 2014, the site’s founders decamped to Riga, Latvia, but committed themselves to covering Moscow remotely. The Russian government last year declared Meduza a “foreign agent,” complicating the site’s business model and making it harder for it to sell ads to Russian companies. The site is now wholly dependent on donations from outside of the country it covers. So Meduza’s staff has come to expect hindrances from Vladimir Putin’s government. It’s just that this time, the state’s crackdown is widespread and more severe, says Kevin Rothrock, managing editor of Meduza’s English-language section. In the midst of public protests against the Ukraine invasion, including a recent sign displayed on Russian state TV reading “Russians Against War,” how are Russians interacting with the state-controlled media, and how is Putin’s government responding? To find out I spoke with Kevin Rothrock on Wednesday’s episode of What Next. Our conversation has been edited and condensed for clarity.

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Mary Harris: Russia had these independent broadcasters, Echo of Moscow and TV Rain, that have been recently shut down.

Kevin Rothrock: They’re both tremendous blows. Those were the real multimedia titans when it came to the Russian free press, essentially. There’s also a prominent website named MediaZona—which was established by two of the founding members of Pussy Riot—that focuses exclusively on Russia’s legal system. They are the premier journalists working on criminal trials and investigations, and they had their page on Contactia blocked.

What’s that?

Contactia started off as a shameless Facebook clone, and it has since it has since evolved into something more unique. It is the No. 1 social network inside Russia, and it is very much under the control of the Russian government. There’s lots of evidence to suggest that the site surrenders personal data to police. It’s not a safe network if you’re doing anything that could get you into trouble. Unfortunately, it’s been blocking the independent outlets that need it now even more than before.

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Are there options for news sites in Russia that are trying not to be shut down?

I mean, most of them are gone, but there are few outlets around. The most prominent one at this point would be Novaya Gazeta, one of the oldest independent newspapers in Russia. It’s the last pillar of true independent media that still remains today, and it’s had to make compromises. For instance, when the newswoman did her sign protest, Novaya Gazeta had to blur out her poster. It cannot show anti-war messages because that’s a potential violation of the new criminal code.

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So how does the paper write about it?

With a lot of asterisks. This comes into play, mostly when reporters are interviewing somebody or covering something someone else said, and there’s a footnote at the bottom saying that this word is forbidden by the Russian federal censor, and you have to guess from the context what it is. Same way they would treat an obscenity.

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Your site, Meduza, was blocked. I’m curious about how you learned that was happening.

In advance of being blocked, we received a message from Roskomnadzor, the federal media regulator. After that, we were kind on the lookout for when are we were going to be blocked, because you don’t get a second letter saying now you’re being blocked. We asked one another to keep looking around and monitor any reports of outages. Eventually, those started pouring in, and it was clear that we were being blocked.

You’ve said Telegram is a way some Russians are getting independent information. Can you explain how that works?

Telegram, right now, is sort of the last unfiltered resource for information in Russia. There’s not really a good explanation as to why Russian authorities haven’t tried to close it.

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I can’t speak to the data security of Telegram, but it is an absolutely beautiful app. It’s just very pretty in terms of its user interface, which is a mix of messaging and public channels. Telegram channels are extremely popular. They’re like the hotbed of Russian blogging today—and not just blogging, but also professional media outlets are sharing their stuff there.

So you can find like-minded people.

You can find absolutely anything. You can find illegal things, and you can human rights activists and poetry. It’s the whole internet shoved into an app that is built on messaging and multimedia—you can share videos and music and all that stuff. There’s almost no content moderation on Telegram, so it is kind of the Wild West.

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It sounds to me like the Russian government is making the bar higher and higher and higher for getting good quality information, and making it so you need to use apps where there’s probably also a lot of misinformation. You can see how in an environment like this, it might be easier for the Russian government to control the narrative because it’s making it so difficult to get accurate news.

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It’s also tempting for someone like me to see that protest that happened on Russian TV and think of it as a change in how Russians view Putin and his invasion of Ukraine. But is that actually the case? Do we have any evidence of that?

That protest was extremely brave, and it’s inspiring to people that are seeing it. But I wouldn’t say it’s a watershed moment in Russian public consciousness. The reasons for that being, the mediasphere is controlled, the narrative has been well-established for years, and Russians also have legitimate reasons to distrust the West.

There are certainly people out there we wouldn’t expect to have anti-war views. I think that most Russians and Russian journalists didn’t think this invasion could happen. Now it is happening and there’s not a rebellion. So we’re just having to deal with the fact that most Russians seem OK with things for now.

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