Skip to content

Putin is tightening his grip on independent journalists

Working conditions for independent journalists in Russia have become much more difficult. And experts Journalisten has spoken to think the situation will only get worse.

Journalisten contacted The Insider to find out about the working conditions of independent journalists in Russia. It is an independent online newspaper operating from Latvia, but aimed at Russian-speaking readers.

Editor-in-Chief Roman Dobrokhotov is skeptical about the future.

– Right now, all independent journalists working in Russia are preparing for various tightening of laws and regulations, as well as increased pressure. In recent months, attacks on journalists have escalated: one can remember the arrest of Roman Anin, the ongoing case against Ivan Safronov, the introduction of new libel laws and other laws that sharpen censorship, he says.

Dobrokhotov doesn’t hide what he thinks about President Vladimir Putin.

– Probably the situation will become even worse. Putin is trying to completely destroy the free press, as it was in the Soviet Union before the perestroika, and will do anything to achieve this.

A nightmare

Dobrokhotov’s statements come in the wake of a nightmarish half-year for independent journalists in Russia.

Roman Dobrokhotov Photo: The Insider

On February 3, the editor of the independent Russian online newspaper Mediazona was sentenced to twenty-five days in prison. On April 23, the independent online newspaper Meduza was added to the list of the Russian Ministry of Justice’s list of foreign agents. This means that they have to inform about their new status in all articles, including on social media, in a font that is twice as large as the rest of the content. This has led to the loss of many advertisers.

– As we understand it, Meduza was registered as a foreign agent as a “symmetrical response” to Latvia’s ban on the state-owned Russian media house RT. But of course other publications also risk ending up on this list, Dobrokhotov points out. Journalisten has tried to get in touch with Meduza without success.

From bad to worse

Former long-time Moscow correspondent for NRK, Hans-Wilhelm Steinfeldt, agrees with Dobrokhotov’s gloomy predictions. He recalls the “Revision 6” strategy presented by Putin in 2000, which describes “to take over the media” as “strategically important”.

– It was a post-Stalinist, modernized, but clearly authoritarian strategy, Steinfeldt says.

Steinfeldt refers to his own book about Putin from last year, in which he describes that the popular author Vladimir Voynovich was awarded the Russian Literature Prize in 2001. But in 2015, the relationship had broken down, and Vojnovich wanted on Putin’s birthday that “an international tribunal must take care of him. (…) Every dictator is a tragic figure. I feel no pity for Putin, but for his victims… When a man has been in power for more than 15 years, he goes crazy. Not figuratively, but in a medical sense. He develops megalomania, paranoia and considers himself a significant general, and around him there are only suspicious enemies that he with contempt finds in every individual!”

Falls from bottom ranking

Another independent online newspaper that was shut down this year was the online newspaper VTimes, which was started by defecting journalists from the business newspaper Vedomosti. The newspaper was shut down on June 12, on Russia’s Independence Day.

– The risk of being prosecuted was too great, both for the management and the journalists, said founder and journalist Aleksandr Gubski to RSF.

In the World Press Freedom Index, published annually by Reporters Without Borders, Russia fell from 149th to 150th place (out of 180 countries) in 2021. Russia also scores 0/4 on Freedom House’s ranking of the question “Are there free and independent media?”

Under intense pressure

Atle Staalesen in The Barents Observer, the only Norwegian online newspaper that publishes in Russian, writes that independent Russian journalists have long been under intense pressure.

– And this pressure has been further intensified over the past year. The law on foreign agents has been gradually tightened and now includes practically everyone who has a relationship abroad and who engages in “political activity” (read: independent journalism), Staalesen writes to Journalisten.

Atle Staalesen Photo: The Barents Observer

Several media outlets, as well as individual journalists, are now on this list, which makes it extremely difficult for them to do their job. Independent journalists are increasingly seen as potential “enemies of the state”, he points out.

– The legislation is applied selectively against anyone who can conceivably promote independent and challenging views, and both direct and indirect censorship has become common practice, Staalesen describes.

– The Russian Media Authority Roskomnadzor has set out to become an institution with several thousand employees that constantly monitors both ordinary media and social media. In the current political situation, there is no indication that conditions for independent journalists will improve. On the contrary, Staalesen concludes.

In May, the Barents Observer published a report on the situation of independent journalists in Russia, which states, among other things, that the number of employees in Roskomnadzor has increased from only 12 in 2012 to more than 2,700 in 2020. More than 800 of these now monitor the activities of 9,500 media and a large number of social media around the clock.

Blocked in Russia

As Journalisten has previously written about, The Barents Observer was contacted by the Russian Media Authority in 2019 and asked to remove their Russian translation of the case of the Sami and gay Dan Eriksson within 24 hours.

– We refused, and a few days later were blocked in Russia. A very bad development for a newspaper that since 2003 has published all its news in both English and Russian, Staalesen writes. The alleged reason was that Eriksson in the case says that he twice tried to take his own life.

– But we are convinced that the real reason was that we publish in Russian and thus appear as a “threat” in relation to the official Russia’s presentation of reality. If it hadn’t been over the story of Dan Eriksson, it would probably have been over a different story, either concerning the situation within national security, the environment or civil society in the north.

The Barents Observer has sued the Russian Media Authority, and the case has now been approved by the Russian Supreme Court.

Still critical news outlets

Helge Blakkisrud, researcher at the Norwegian Institute of Foreign Policy (NUPI), says that freedom of the press has narrow conditions, but that the degree of leeway depends on which media one is talking about. The opportunity to pursue critical journalism is far greater in Internet-based media than in television and radio. He believes that there are still critical media in Russia.

– There are still critical newspapers, such as Novaya Gazeta, and despite the fact that the state gas monopoly Gazprom has taken control of the radio channel Ekho Moscow, this radio station continues to deliver good and critical journalism and debate. But the most critical journalism tends to drift towards the internet. And while Russian authorities have previously been most concerned with controlling the major TV channels, which are the main source of news for most Russians, they have now increasingly gone for internet-based media platforms, such as Meduza, and registered several of them as “foreign agents,” he says.

Helge Blakkisrud Photo: Christopher Olssøn/NUPI

Blakkisrud agrees with Staalesen that there is no reason to expect any change for the better in the near future.

– On the contrary, in the last six months we have seen that the Russian authorities have systematically tightened the legislation in order to exercise stronger control over the political opposition, civil society and the media. A number of changes have been adopted in the legislation that make it more difficult for both journalists and academics to engage in a critical debate.

This has been seen by many in the light of the forthcoming parliamentary elections in September. However, Blakkisrud is skeptical.

– I don’t think we will see any move by the authorities to ease the pressure. In 2024, there will be a presidential election, and the Kremlin will want to have full control of the run-up to this. Under the old constitution, Putin had to resign in connection with this election. It is now open for him to sit until 2036. But no matter how long Putin intends to sit, he wants to have full control of the transfer of power to a hand-picked heir. This means that critical and independent media will also suffer under brutal conditions in the years to come.

In connection with this case, Journalisten has sought contact with the Russian Embassy in Oslo and the Ministry of Foreign Affairs in Russia for comments, so far without response.