Explained: What Russia’s war on Ukraine has meant for its news media

An unexpected but extraordinary display of dissent against the war in Ukraine unfolded on television sets across Russia earlier this week when Marina Ovsyannikova, editor-in-chief of Russia’s Channel One, burst on the board of a live broadcast and chanted: “Stop the war. No to war.

To drive home the point, she stood behind the news anchor holding a handmade poster that read, “Don’t believe the propaganda. They lie to you here.

The Kremlin called her actions “hooliganism” and she was quickly arrested. She was later released and a fine of approximately $270, but she could still face a longer prison sentence. Appearing in court on Tuesday, she refused to withdraw her statement against the war.

As the channel quickly switched to a taped segment seconds after the incident, Ovsyannikova’s message was heard loud and clear across the world.

In Russia’s heavily censored media landscape, journalists and media professionals rarely question the Kremlin’s official position. The Indian Express looks at Russia’s media policy and how the war in Ukraine has intensified the country’s crackdown on local and independent media.

Putin’s censorship bill

A week after invading Ukraine, Russian President Vladimir Putin signed into law a controversial censorship bill. The new law prohibits the dissemination of “false” information about the invasion of Ukraine, with a penalty of up to 15 years in prison for anyone found guilty, CNN reported. But the definition of what constitutes “fake” news remains elusive.

According to a report by The New York Times, the law could make it illegal for a media outlet to call the attack in Ukraine a “war”, with the Kremlin claiming it is a “special military operation”. Authorities have sanctioned journalists and news organizations that have broken the law since the start of the war.

Another law penalizes any coverage of the Russian military that does not align with the government or is seen as denigrating the armed forces.

In the past few weeks alone, some of Russia’s oldest independent news outlets, including the Ekho Moskvy radio station and the Dozhd TV channel, have chosen to shut down. At least 150 journalists have been forced to flee the country since the start of the war, according to Georgia-based investigative news site Agentstvo. Many journalists have also chosen to resign from some of Russia’s main state-controlled news agencies, the BBC reported.

Repression against foreign media

Russia’s latest campaign of censorship reportedly began on February 26, when the country’s internet connection went down. Users started complaining about not being able to access Facebook and Twitter.

Russia’s media regulator, Roskomnadzor, has accused social media platforms like Facebook of “discriminating” against Russian media and state information resources. The agency claimed that the latest restrictions imposed by Facebook on the Russian news channel RT and other state-controlled media violated Russian law, PA reported.

Ten media outlets, including in Russian language BBC and Deutsche Wellereceived a letter from Roskomnadzor, warning them that access to their websites would be “restricted” if they did not remove content that does not comply with Kremlin rules, Euro news reported. Reported content included coverage of anti-war protests in Russia and editorials criticizing Putin.

Earlier this month, the main Latvian-based investigative media, Meduza, and the Russian branch of Radio Free Europe, Radio Svoboda, were banned by Roskomnadzor.

In response to the recent Russian media crackdown, almost all international networks, including CNNand ABC Newshave temporarily suspended broadcasting in the country. Bloomberg and the BBCalso said they were suspending the work of their journalists and support staff in Russia.

Many Russian freelance journalists now use Telegram to spread news, according to a report by NPR.

How does the public media cover the war in Ukraine?

As independent media choose to shut down en masse rather than bow to the Kremlin, state-backed media are increasingly becoming the sole source of news in Russia. Russian media have significantly downplayed the scale of the attack on Ukraine, using phrases like “military operation” instead of “war” or “invasion”.

Russian reports have also distorted the situation in Ukraine, according to a report by Time magazine. For example, contrary to international media reports, an article in RIA News repeated a claim by the Russian Defense Ministry, which denied all reports of damaged Russian aircraft and armored vehicles during the war. The article further alleged that Ukrainian servicemen were abandoning their posts without putting up any resistance.

Russian media have also repeatedly downplayed the threat to Ukrainian civilians. “As stated by the Ministry of Defense of the Russian Federation, the Russian army does not strike cities, but only neutralizes military infrastructure, so nothing threatens the civilian population,” an article published by CASS news agency on the evacuation of Ukrainians reads. According to UN figures, at least 636 civilians have been killed in the war so far.

But cracks are beginning to appear in the Russian propaganda machinery. During an episode of a popular TV talk show hosted by pro-Putin journalist Vladimir Solovyov, his guests began to openly criticize the Russian government.

In another case, a Russian army officer admitted on the Defense Ministry TV channel, Zvezda, that Russian soldiers were dying in Ukraine. “Our guys there, from Donetsk and Luhansk, and our special operations forces are dying,” he said.

What was Russia’s media policy before the war?

While censorship is prohibited by the Russian constitution, the Kremlin has found ways around it over the years. The most common tool used to target and penalize journalists has been the “foreign agents” law.

The law, which was passed in 2017, requires all media classified as “foreign agents” to include a disclaimer before their content stating that the material was distributed by a foreign media or Russian legal entity “exercising the duties of a foreign agent.” Capitalized text should be added to all posts, including articles, videos, and even Instagram stories.

Being labeled as a foreign agent tends to significantly reduce advertising revenue for many of these news outlets.

The all-powerful Roskomnadzor has also helped advance the Kremlin’s agenda by exerting pressure on the country’s news media. Over the decades, journalists who criticized Putin and the Kremlin have been the target of raids and criminal cases.

Putin’s attempts to rein in the Russian media began in 2000, shortly after he became president. He quickly took control of NTV, the only independent television channel in Russia. In the decade that followed, several high-profile newspapers were bought up by state-owned companies and pro-Kremlin businessmen.

The decade was also marked by several high-profile attacks on journalists, including the murder of five reporters who worked for the Russian newspaper Novaya Gazeta.

Just last year, the European Court of Human Rights ruled that Russia failed to adequately investigate the kidnapping and murder of one of the reporters, Natalya Estemirova, in Chechnya in 2009 , reported The Guardian.

The fatal shooting of another, Anna Politkovskaya, in October 2006 was also widely and controversially linked to the Kremlin. Politkovskaya was best known for her investigative reporting on corruption and crimes during the Second Chechen War.

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