The Russian Media Crackdown

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S1: Kevin Rothrock says it’s a little hard to describe his job right now. He lives in Connecticut. He reports on Russia. So his work is sort of everywhere all the time.

S2: I think probably of all the people in the and the earth, the people I’m most in sync with, they’re like the whoever is floating around in the International Space Station because there’s nothing about my routine, my my bio rhythms that are in sync with, like, the normal rotation of the planet.

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S1: Meduza The website where Kevin’s an editor, calls itself The Real Russia Today. So he was the guy I wanted to get on the line when I saw this tape earlier this week of a state television employee barnstorming a Russian newscast. I use the term newscast figuratively. It’s more of a hardcore propaganda program. So that’s the entree, shaggy to substance. In this video, an anchorwoman is sitting at her desk blandly reading copy when another woman jumps into the frame behind her, holding a hand-drawn poster.

S2: This woman named Marina Sannikov, who is apparently for many years, has been an employee at a state television network called Channel One or Beautiful Canal. It’s one of the big ones. She decided to to interrupt an evening news bulletin or news broadcasts with one of the most recognizable TV anchors in Russian television.

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S1: Marina Yanukovych’s poster reads, They’re lying to you for about 5 seconds. She’s engaged in a kind of standoff. Anchor keeps reading while Yanukovych frantically waves her sign. At the bottom, she’s spelled out Russians against war in English.

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S2: And she also managed to yell a few times, Stop the war. No, to war. And then they they cut to another segment.

S1: What happened to this protester afterwards?

S2: So if for almost a day she was totally missing, no one could find her. There were at least four prominent human rights lawyers looking for her. And she just surfaced. She was arraigned, you know, in a courtroom. But just before we got on this call, that was that was in motion.

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S1: Eventually of Sihanoukville was released, charged with a misdemeanor. She told the press that she had been questioned for 14 hours. What I wanted Kevin to tell me, though, is whether this moment means anything about how the rest of Russia feels about the war in Ukraine. Something that struck me about the protest on TV and the protester herself is that she’d worked for state TV for a long time as a translator, I think. And the people who worked with her have started speaking and basically saying she wasn’t especially political. She talked about our kids and our dogs and the house. Is that notable to you?

S2: Yeah. I mean, I think that it would be strange if she were like a well-known opposition activist since you were working at Channel One. I think that would have raised some flags for the for her her bosses long ago. But I think in terms of if you’re if you’re, you know, a Kremlin official and you’re hearing that, you’re probably concerned, you’re probably thinking, okay, well, that’s this is at least one example of somebody being essentially radicalized by the war. And so insofar as Marina’s case is generalizable, that’s a problem for the Kremlin. I don’t know to what degree it is.

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S1: Today on the show, this live TV protest reveals the desperation of some Russians chafing at Putin’s new war time, restrictions on the news they can consume and even the words they can use. But for the foreseeable future, accurate reports on Russia’s government are going underground. I’m Mary Harris. You’re listening to What next? Stick around. Meduza. Where Kevin Rothrock works is an independent Russian news website. Born from the ashes of a media outlet that crumbled under Kremlin pressure in 2014, Medusa’s founders decamped to Riga, Latvia, but they committed themselves to covering Moscow remotely. The Russian government has not really liked this arrangement. Last year, they declared Medusa a foreign agent, which complicated the site’s business model, making it harder to sell Russian ads. The sites now wholly dependent on donations from outside of the country that it covers. This is all to say that Meduza staff, they’ve come to expect hindrances from Vladimir Putin’s government. It’s just that this time, Kevin says, the state’s crackdown is widespread and much more severe.

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S2: So Meduza has had to evacuate its Moscow bureau. All his staff have had to leave, and the ones that couldn’t leave were didn’t want to leave because obviously this is their life. They had to unfortunately quit because they were concerned that working for a media organization that is in active violation of Russia’s new censorship potentially puts them at risk of, you know, felony charges. And that’s not something that we wanted them to risk. And presumably they didn’t want to risk it either.

S1: How does that impact the work you do? Like what stories are able to tell?

S2: I mean, it’s not great, obviously. And I think that this is this goes across the board. The quality of the information we’re going to get out of Russia for the foreseeable future will be significantly degraded. I used to say that this was true of Russian language media because Russian censorship generally didn’t didn’t target foreign media, foreign correspondents. I always thought that they were kind of in a privileged position.

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S1: They were safe because they weren’t Russian people.

S2: Yeah. I mean, it would have been an international scandal to lock up a New York Times correspondent for 15 years because they wrote an article about about an obvious war. But but at this point, that is a serious concern. And now everybody’s going to kind of have to do what Meduza was set up to do. Does it always have correspondents in Moscow? But our headquarters were always in Riga, and we were always built around the idea that it’s just not safe to be too exposed in Russia. And so now everybody’s going to kind of have to take that lesson, I think. And without any correspondents in Moscow, without any regular, kind of dedicated, full time staff, you know, that’s that’s going to hurt the quality of information you can get. It’s also because of the current climate, the officials are not going to be as eager to talk to correspondents.

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S1: It is notable that Meduza is a website that covers Russia but is doing it from Latvia. You’re like journalists in exile, essentially.

S2: Sure. I mean, more so now than before.

S1: So can you just lay out for me over the last few weeks which news sites and social media pages have been shuttered or blocked in Russia?

S2: Well, so Meduza number one with the bullet.

S1: Your website.

S2: Yeah. Yeah.

S1: Russia also had these independent broadcasters echo of Moscow and TV rain. How important was it that these broadcasters were shut down?

S2: They’re both tremendous blows. Those are the real titans of multimedia when it came to Russian free press, essentially. And, you know, websites like like Meduza, for instance, you know, we have multimedia aspects. You can go on Instagram and watch our reels or whatever the kids are doing these days. But it wasn’t like a live running stream of video that people could tune in to the fact that those those two outlets are gone. Is it’s it’s hard to exaggerate the blow it is to Russian free press. I mean, I don’t know how much it’ll how much this will mean to your listeners, but there’s a prominent website called Media Zone. It was established by two of the founding members of Pussy Riot, interestingly enough, and they put together this website that focuses exclusively on Russia’s legal system. And so they are the premier journalists working on criminal trials and criminal investigations. And they were blocked also. They also had their page on contact. You blocked.

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S1: What’s that?

S2: So contact is it started off essentially as a shameless Facebook clone, and it has since evolved into something more unique. But it is the number one social network inside Russia. It is very much under the control of the Russian government, and there’s lots of evidence to suggest that they also surrender personal data to the police. And so it’s not a safe network if you’re doing anything civic or anything that could get you into trouble. And unfortunately, it’s been blocking the the independent news outlets that have, you know, needed it now more than before.

S1: Yeah. I mean, we can just tick off the Western media companies that have been blocked in Russia. Facebook’s been blocked. TikTok wasn’t banned, but Russian users haven’t really been able to upload videos for a while, as my understanding.

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S2: Yeah, that’s right. And it could be blocked because they’ve apparently. They started blocking videos featuring speeches by Putin, which is a you know, that’s that’s a big no, no, you don’t want to do that. It’s going to make them upset. And it’s I know that the federal censor has, you know, officially appealed to them saying, you know, don’t block Putin’s videos. That’s that’s unfair anti-Russian censorship.

S1: I sort of add up all of the. Institutions that have been blocked or shut down or are struggling right now in Russia. And it feels really dramatic. It feels like a curtain coming down.

S2: Like an iron curtain kind of.

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S1: How does the Russian state explain itself here? Because, I mean, if I was inside Russia, no matter what I believed, I think I would see this as a major shift that would make me question what was happening.

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S2: I don’t know if it necessarily feels like a major shift to ordinary Russians, these outlets. While they did have large audiences. You know, they’re still somewhat peripheral. Probably more people have noticed, you know, the loss of Instagram, I would imagine, than they have the loss of, you know, media zone or whatever. But in terms of of of it being a strange time, I don’t think that’s lost on people. I do think that Russians are inevitably aware that something’s happening and they’ve been primed for that. The narrative being that the West is conducting economic warfare against Russia, which is not untrue. And in that regard, I’d say that they’ve they’ve been prepared for something big to happen. The Kremlin has done a good job, I think, of preparing people for uncertain times and so on.

S1: Yeah, I mean, meduza your website did an interesting explainer just laying out how the Russian government in the last couple of weeks has come forward with all of these explanations for what’s happening and why we’re protecting you and your children from misinformation. Like there was a curriculum rolled out in schools. Could you explain this for listeners who don’t know about it?

S2: I think it was two weeks ago now the Ministry of Enlightenment, I believe this how it would be translated and said, wow, strange. But that’s that’s what it’s called. It’s really just an offshoot of the Ministry of Education. But, you know, so maybe it’s not fair to call it enlightenment or that is that is the direct translation. But they had this this like national livestream. It was you know, people were told to tune in classrooms, if I’m not mistaken, at least teachers. And they were told to tune in. And what it was, was a 45 minute video of like an eight year old girl sitting in a TV studio surrounded by two guys. And essentially they had her ask questions and they would ask her questions about footage that was coming out of Ukraine, an.

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S1: Eight year old girl.

S2: It was very weird. She looked eight or ten and like no older than that.

S1: So the idea was to demonstrate how impressionable she was.

S2: Oh, no, no, no. The idea was just to show a girl asking questions, a child asking questions, and then to steer her to the truth. And some of the questions were, I’ve seen videos of missiles hitting buildings in Kiev and they’re saying the Russians fired them. And then one of the guys says, oh, well, let’s review the footage. As you can see, the smoke trail and that missile is white and Russian missiles have a have a darker smoke shell. So this is clearly a Ukrainian missile. And she says, okay, thanks for. Thanks for telling me. Weird stuff.

S1: Wow. And that’s not true. I assume.

S2: I also assume I don’t know, I’m not a military person. So even if it were true, it’s still very weird to me. But I will go out on a limb and say it probably isn’t.

S1: Are there options for new sites in Russia that are trying not to shut down?

S2: I mean, most of them are gone, are blocked. But there are there are a few there are a few outlets. I mean, the probably the most prominent one at this point would be Novaya Gazeta, which is also one of the oldest independent newspapers in Russia. And they’ve they’ve they’re honestly they’re kind of the only they’re the last pillar of the true independent media that still remains today. And they’ve had to make compromises. For instance, when of Sannikov did her protest, when they reported it on social media and they included an image of her protesting on air. They had to blur out her poster. So if you just look at it, it’s like, What am I looking at? Did she run on stage with the blurred poster? Did they blur the poster when she when they were broadcasting? They didn’t. Everybody saw it. But the way it was, the way Novaya Gazeta has to report is they cannot show anti-war messages because that’s a potential violation of the new criminal code.

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S1: How do they write about it?

S2: They they write about it with a lot of actresses. This comes into play mostly when they’re interviewing somebody or when they’re covering something that someone else said. And then they have like 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.

S1: Wow.

S2: Yeah.

S1: So when Meduza was blocked, I’m a little curious how you. Knew it was happening. Was it that people started calling you like, hey, I can’t I can’t get into the site?

S2: Well, in advance of being blocked, I believe we received some official paperwork from or maybe it’s just an online electronic message, I think, from Roskomnadzor, which is the federal media regulator. And I actually I saw that the editor in chief mentioned it in our Slack channel saying, okay, we got letters of happiness from Roskomnadzor is an asterisk. And I was like, What are the letters? A happiness? And it’s just he’s just being sarcastic. I just, you know, not being a native Russian speaker, I guess it wasn’t immediately apparent to me, but I had to I had to ask around and figure that out. And then, you know, at that point after that, we were kind of just on the lookout for when are they going to start blocking us? Because they don’t you don’t get a second letter saying and now you’re being blocked. We all asked each other to keep looking around and monitor, you know, any reports of outages. And eventually they started pouring in and it was clear that we were being blocked.

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S1: So journalists at Meduza are joining a long tradition of journalists who leave Russia. They go into exile. Can you explain to people who have no grasp of Russian history why that significant.

S2: In Russia has a history of expelling some of the best, most creative and sometimes most extremist elements that it produces domestically? I mean, did everybody from Lenin to Solzhenitsyn to Dostoevsky, they’ve spent time in exile either abroad or domestically. You know, sometimes it’s people will be forced to go to Siberia or to the east for long periods of time. And it’s just a phenomenon of Russian history. It’s kind of I mean, I’m not a world historian, but it seems unique to me in so far as there’s these cycles where the core movers and shakers of Russian society have to go away for a while. And we’re seeing a major spike in that right now. And there’s a presumption that after Putin, the system will either collapse or begin to crumble, and that will inevitably lead to another sort of spring where there’s liberalisation and opening up and they’ll just be this kind of recurring cycle. And, you know, the dream is that that will one day break and Russia will become just another boring Luxembourg or something like that, and no one will want to write about it anymore. I know several several Moscow correspondents that joke that that when they were working there in the in the late nineties early 2000s and the free market was kind of settling in. They had the successful transition from Yeltsin to Putin and there was still independent media. Russia was by no means a normal Western country at that point, but it seemed like the general trajectory was that in like a in a generation it was going to be just kind of boring, you know, kind of Poland or something like that. And that was going to be it. That was kind of the end of history for Russia, and it didn’t turn out that way, unfortunately. I would say.

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S1: More in a minute with my guest, Kevin Rothrock. He’s the managing editor of Russian news website Meduza. One story I read described the most recent wave of censorship, as is erasing the last remnants of independent information online. And I wonder if you would agree with that or whether you think they’re still out there if you just know where to look.

S2: I mean, I guess I’d say yes to both of those things. I mean, the fact that they’re that the websites are blocked and that you need to know which corners of social media to look or you need to have a VPN running.

S1: What does a VPN let you do?

S2: VPN lets you circumvent censorship. It’s a virtual private network. It basically tunnels you into the Internet through a different part of the world. If you’re using a VPN and your exit node is somewhere outside Russia, you can access images, website or any of these blocked websites. No problem. And same goes for all the apps and so on. They will work. And that’s how most. You’d still find plenty of Russians accessing Instagram. Now it’s blocked. They’re still on it. They’re still uploading pictures. And in fact, of the the TV news broadcaster who’s whose broadcast was interrupted by by a Sannikov a she posted a yoga video on Instagram about an hour afterwards where she was chanting some kind of mantra or whatever about how calm she was. You know, she I think she was trying to brag about how she kept a cooler or whatever, but it was on Instagram. It’s like, lady, this is your government has said this is an extremist organization, essentially. Like, you know, they haven’t actually stamped that in law yet, but it’s coming. And I don’t know, like this video is going to be illegal in a few weeks. So anyway.

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S1: I use a telegram as a way that some Russians are getting independent information. Can you explain how that works?

S2: Telegram right now is the sort of the last unfiltered resource for information in Russia that is not blocked. I mean.

S1: Why?

S2: There’s not really a good explanation as to why the Russian authorities haven’t tried to close it. There’s there’s a main conspiracy theories about why Russia why the Russian authorities tolerate telegram. But the fact is, is that it’s now the go to social network for pretty much anybody left in Russia.

S1: How does it work? Like if I open it up, like, what do I do? Where do I go?

S2: So I will say I can’t speak to the data security about Telegram. And I’m aware that lots of people say that it’s terrible that that nothing is secure, everything can be grabbed. A lot of data security will tell you that as somebody who doesn’t understand that or doesn’t necessarily always care because I’m not sharing my Social Security number or whatever, my what I would say is that it is an absolutely beautiful app and it’s just so gorgeous to behold. It’s just very pretty in terms of its user interface. It’s a mix of messaging and public channels. Telegram channels are extremely popular. It’s really it’s the hotbed of Russian blogging today. And not just blogging, but also professional media outlets are sharing their stuff there.

S1: So you can find like minded people.

S2: You can find anything. You can find absolutely anything you can find. You can find all the worst, most illegal things. I think you could find, you know, human rights activists in poetry. It’s the whole Internet shoved into an app that is built on messaging and multimedia. You can obviously you can share videos and music and all that stuff. So there’s almost no content moderation on Telegram. So it is kind of the Wild West.

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S1: It’s interesting listening to you. It’s it sounds to me like what the Russian government is doing here is just making the bar higher and higher and higher for getting good quality information and making it so that you need to use apps where there’s probably also a lot of misinformation. So it’s quite cloudy.

S2: Not just that, but I think I think there’s also a reasonable argument to be made that there’s there’s snooping that happens on Telegram or that they have they’re able to see things that people don’t necessarily know they can see. That’s certainly the case on contact. There’s there’s evidence of of contact, just sharing user information with the police, with telegram. It seems to have more application to possibly terrorists or organised extremism where they’re sharing that information with the the FSB, the Federal Security Service. But I think you’re right that that that Russian users there that have a mind for independent news, they’re kind of being corralled into telegram. And it’s unclear what their vulnerabilities are.

S1: There you can see how in an environment like this. It might be easier for the Russian government to control the narrative because they’re making it so difficult to get news that’s accurate. I think it’s tempting for someone like me who’s Western and has a certain point of view about what’s happening in Ukraine that Putin invaded here. And and this is Putin attacking Ukraine to look at something like that protest that happened on Russian TV and think of it as a kind of change. Like, oh, Russians, maybe they’re beginning to agree with my point of view here and see Putin’s invasion of Ukraine as a bad thing or something that might be regretted. But is that actually the case? Do we have any evidence of that?

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S2: I mean, of Sannikov is protest is extremely brave and it’s inspiring to people that are seeing it. But I wouldn’t. It’s not a watershed moment in Russian public consciousness. I don’t think that that will come when 100,000 people marched through the streets of Moscow. And that’s possible, but not likely. The reasons for that being that the what we’ve been discussing, that the media sphere is controlled and the narrative has been well-established for years. And, you know, Russians also have legitimate reasons to distrust the West. I mean, I do think that while this protest that we saw this woman running on to the stage of state television news broadcasts is is incredible. Right. And it’s just it’s just good TV.

S1: Great TV.

S2: Yeah, great TV. Good stuff. I mean, it was it was just it was on it was headline news throughout the Western world. There are certainly people out there, people that we wouldn’t expect with anti-war views. I mean, it was inconceivable up until this this full scale invasion happened that it would happen. I think that most Russians, most Russian area experts, most foreign correspondents in Russia, most Russian journalists, they didn’t think this could happen. This is this was unthinkable. And now it is happening and there’s not a rebellion. And so we’re just kind of having to deal with the fact that, you know, most Russians are are willing to kind of say, okay, for now.

S1: Kevin Rothrock, I’m super grateful for your perspective here. Thank you.

S2: Thanks for having me on.

S1: Kevin Rothrock is the managing editor of Medusa’s English Language Edition. He also hosts the podcast The Russia Guy. And that’s the show. Before we go, I just wanted to let you know that Slate is currently in the middle of a sale. Yeah, you heard me right. We’re offering our slate plus membership at 25% off for the first year. You have been listening to our coverage of the Ukraine crisis. And in the months ahead, we’re going to be bringing you updates on the Supreme Court, the midterms and the ongoing pandemic. The whole reason we can do that is because of people like you who decide to become slate plus members. You don’t just get to listen to this podcast when you’re a member. You get amazing benefits like ad free shows, including this one. You get member exclusive segments on shows like Amicus and Political Gabfest and Unlimited Reading on Slate.com, of course. So help us keep the next going by signing up for Slate Plus at Slate.com. Slash, what next? Plus. Again, it is 25% off your first year for a limited time. So sign up now at Slate.com. Slash what next? Plus, what next is produced by Carmel Delshad Alina Schwartz and Mary Wilson. We got a little help this week from Laura Spencer and Anna Rubanova, and we are led by Alicia montgomery. I’m Mary Harris. I will catch you back in this feed tomorrow.