Russians search for BBC, outside news outlets amid Putin crackdown

AP-Alexander Semilianchenko

A growing number of citizens inside Russia are turning to independent news reports rather than state-sponsored propaganda for information about the invasion. 

The trend comes as Russian officials are working to suppress and distort the work of independent journalists within their own borders and on the ground in Ukraine as they attempt to skew the facts behind the assault and further justify an attack on their neighbor to the west. 

Recent figures tallied by the BBC, one of Europe’s largest news providers, show traffic coming from inside Russia for content about the invasion has spiked dramatically, a sign the Russian people are looking for alternatives to the state-sponsored programming pumped out by Putin and his allies. 

“It’s often said truth is the first casualty of war,” BBC Director-General Tim Davie said this week. “In a conflict where disinformation and propaganda is rife, there is a clear need for factual and independent news people can trust — and in a significant development, millions more Russians are turning to the BBC.” 

Russian President Vladimir Putin has from the onset of the invasion attempted to paint Russia forces as “liberators” who are conducting “special military operations” inside Ukraine in an attempt to “denazify” the country’s government. 

State media outlets such as RT and Sputnik have parroted those talking points, and their employees have reportedly been instructed not to use words such as “invasion” and “war” to describe what is happening in Ukraine. 

Some government-sponsored media outlets have gone a step further, suggesting Ukrainian forces are committing war crimes against their own people. 

“They use civilians as a human shield, deliberately positioning strike systems in residential areas and stepping up the shelling of cities in Donbas,” one presenter on Rossiya 1 said this week. 

On Tuesday, the Ministry of Defence of Ukraine said Russia had attacked Kyiv’s main broadcasting tower so “the enemy can spread [disinformation]” to destabilize the situation” and that some television channels were taken offline. 

Earlier in the day, two independent news organizations within Russia that had been criticizing the country’s invasion were taken off the air.  

On Wednesday, independent Russian outlet TV Rain’s editor-in-chief, Tikhon Dzyadko, said after the Kremlin restricted access to its independent reporting on the war, it was clear “the personal safety of some of us is at risk.” 

“We are facing a real threat. It’s getting harder to work here,” anchor Ekaterina Kotrikadze said on CNN’s “Reliable Sources” over the weekend. “But you know it’s impossible for us to work like this.”

In Ukraine, where bombing has been going on for days and sent hundreds of thousands fleeing, Russia has reportedly been working to make life difficult for news organizations covering the conflict even before the shelling started. 

“We were getting huge hits that were incapacitating our systems,” Bohdan Nahaylo, the editor-in-chief of the Kyiv Post, told CNN this week of a suspected cyberattack carried out by Russian forces on the country’s largest newspaper.

“Then the other problem was that fear and uncertainty affected the staff. … Obviously they had families, and some decided to leave, and so they were evacuating and stuck in traffic. Some were in bomb shelters. It was a logistical nightmare created by both the missile strikes, people not being in their places as a result, the system not functioning, and it being much more difficult to communicate amongst one another.”

Late this week, international news outlet Voice of America (VOA) said Russian media regulator Roskomnadzor threatened to block its Russian-language website in the country unless it halts coverage of Moscow’s invasion of Ukraine. 

“Any attempts to interfere with the free flow of news and information are deeply troubling,” said acting VOA Director Yolanda López in response. “We find this order to be in direct opposition to the values of all democratic societies.” 

Some inside Russia appear not to believe the propaganda. Hundreds of people have been arrested in recent days during anti-war protests in Moscow and elsewhere across the country. 

Putin has meanwhile faced increased pressure from the international community to back off his attacks in Ukraine, and some of his top allies in the kleptocracy have made statements urging peace or calling the conflict in Ukraine “a tragedy.”  

Still, Russian state media appears determined to push a false narrative about why Russian forces have invaded Ukraine and the success of the effort. 

“It’s beyond Orwellian,” said Julia Davis, a columnist at The Daily Beast and expert on Russian media. “Their media coverage is painting a grim picture as to the Kremlin’s intentions because they are insisting that the upcoming talks with [Ukrainian President Volodymyr] Zelensky are designed to extract Ukraine’s capitulation and nothing less than that.” 

Meduza, an English-language online newspaper based in Latvia, published an editorial this week saying that “very soon, it’s possible that anyone in Russia seeking information from the ‘enemy voices’ of independent sources will need to make the same efforts as those who lived behind the Iron Curtain.” 

“In other words, at the end of the day, even Putin would be better off with some independent media — if only he understood how it actually works and why a modern society can’t function without it,” the editorial read. “The deplorable state in which our country now finds itself is one of the results of the authorities’ assault on the independent media — and thus against reality itself.”

Tags BBC RT Russia Ukraine Vladimir Putin

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