Putin efforts to stifle media reach fever pitch

Russian President Vladimir Putin’s efforts to stifle dissent have reached a fever pitch, causing news organizations to reassess how to safely report from the country.

Putin late last week signed into law a measure criminalizing the publication of critical information about Russia’s invasion of Ukraine — one of the most restrictive anti-press measures put forth by the leader of a world power in recent memory. 

International news organizations are responding to Putin’s crackdown on independent media in varying ways as they attempt to balance the safety of their journalists against their duty to cover a massive global crisis.

Meanwhile, a shrinking number of independent media inside Russia are attempting to break through the pro-invasion propaganda being pumped out by the Kremlin on state television and across social media. 

“What we see right now is an incredibly stupid propaganda law,” Irina Borogan, an independent journalist who fled Russia last year out of fear for her safety, said during a recent interview. “But the Kremlin also thought that Russia would take control over Kyiv in the first few days after the invasion. Now that [the invasion] is turning into a long and contentious war, the propaganda can only do so much and state authorities are trying to make it even more difficult for news about the invasion to spread domestically.” 

Several of the largest media companies in the West are reconsidering how to report safely from Russia and Eastern Europe.

The New York Times made the dramatic move this week of pulling its journalists out of Moscow, citing concern for the well-being of staffers just days after the passage of Putin’s restrictive law targeting independent reporting.  

“For the safety and security of our editorial staff working in the region, we are moving them out of the country for now,” a spokesperson for the Times said in a statement on Tuesday. “We look forward to them returning as soon as possible while we monitor the application of the new law.”

Cliff Levy, a veteran foreign correspondent and former Moscow bureau chief for the Times, tweeted he was “saddened” by the news but vowed that the Times and other Western media “will not be deterred,” by Putin’s strongman tactics against the press. 

Other outlets have taken a more creative approach in a bid to ensure the security of staff. Reporting on the invasion from areas outside Russia can also have consequences for reporters within the country’s borders, as The Washington Post explained. 

The Post announced late last week it would be taking the unprecedented step of removing bylines and datelines from certain coverage within Russia, citing similar safety concerns. Bylines and datelines are tools print outlets have traditionally used to ensure transparency in reporting and authenticity of firsthand accounts from the scene of news events. 

“For now, to help protect our Moscow-based journalists, we will exercise caution by removing bylines and datelines from certain stories,” the Post said of its decision. “We want to be sure that our Moscow-based correspondents are not held responsible for material that is produced from beyond Russia.”

The BBC took the opposite approach this week, saying it would resume reporting from Russia after announcing a hiatus on its reporting late last week. Recent figures tallied by the BBC show web traffic coming from inside Russia for content about the invasion has spiked dramatically, a sign the Russian people are looking for alternatives to Putin’s propaganda about the situation.

Whether in Russia or elsewhere around the world, the independent, fact-based reporting and images from the front lines of war often help shape how the global public views such conflicts and the decisions made by world leaders in response. For example, photographs of dead children washing up on the shores of a beach in Turkey during the Syrian war in 2017 accelerated an outcry from the Western world for humanitarian aid for refugees from the war-torn country. 

Last weekend in Ukraine, Times photojournalist Lynsey Addario captured a harrowing photo showing an entire Ukrainian family, including children, who had been killed in Russian bombing. 

Addario’s dispatch and those like it come as the Kremlin does everything it can to prevent images and accounts from the front lines from making it into the public view.

“Out of Russia after a fortnight that only got darker and more ominous,” Dominic Waghorn, an international affairs editor for SkyNews, said in a string of tweets this week after leaving the country. “Where you can’t call an invasion by 10s of 1000s of Russian troops an invasion, where independent Russian journalists have mostly left because the state has criminalised journalism and where the streets crawl with tooled up paramilitary riot cops brandishing batons and checking young peoples phones for ‘treasonous’ content.” 

Gulnoza Said, the Europe and Central Asia program coordinator for the Committee to Protect Journalists, said the situation for reporters working in the region is likely only going to get worse regardless of how Russia’s invasion of Ukraine ultimately ends. 

“There is very little independent reporting on any issues in Russia, let alone the war in Ukraine,” she said during an interview with The Hill this week. “We haven’t seen this kind of exodus among the Russian intelligentsia since the 1917 Bolshevik revolution.”  

The Kremlin’s “propaganda and repression machine,” Said added, “is on full-speed right now.” 

“As long as the war continues and if Russia loses … unless Putin is removed from power one way or another,” she said. “These repressions aren’t going to stop.” 

Tags BBC Russia The New York Times Ukraine Vladimir Putin Washington Post

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