Putin waged war on Russian media long before launching war on Ukraine


RIGA, Latvia — TV presenter Tikhon Dzyadko began receiving death threats over the phone just days after Russia attacked Ukraine. Then the website of his independent Russian station, Dozhd, was blocked amid rumors of an impending police raid. He fled the country with his family.

Investigative Editor Alexei Kovalevwho worked for the news site Meduza, felt compelled to leave in March because of harsh wartime censorship laws. He crossed Europe in the middle of the night, “with my panicked bags on my back and my dog ​​in tow”.

And after authorities threatened to sue the staff of Novaya Gazeta, Russia’s only independent newspaper, its political editor decided he had no choice but to suspend operations. Kirill Martynov took refuge in Latvia, with 53 members of the newspaper’s staff, with the intention of launching a new European version despite the lack of money to finance it.

Yet Russian President Vladimir Putin’s war on the Russian media began long before his February 24 invasion of Ukraine and the threat of long prison terms for any journalist who calls the fighting anything but a “special military operation.” “.

For more than two decades he had worked to overturn the rowdy freedoms of the 1990s and rebuild Russia in its vision of great power. It meant clamping down, year after year, on voices that might question his goals or his methods of achieving them. Its approach has become increasingly repressive. Journalists and publishers were a prime target.

“Putin is a fanatic of control, and he thought he should control the media. We can see it now,” said Alexei Venediktov, who was editor of Moscow’s Echo radio station when it closed in March. He fled to Latvia.

Novaya Gazeta, Russia’s last independent newspaper, is silent

Putin won his first term as president in March 2000. His first major crisis came that summer – exposing the lingering flaws in his leadership – when internal explosions ripped apart the Kursk nuclear-powered submarine during a naval exercise in the Barents Sea. Ninety-five of the 118 crew died within minutes; the other 23 managed to survive more than six hours.

The Kremlin initially rejected offers from other nations to help recover the submarine, while Putin remained on vacation in the Black Sea resort of Sochi.

He later lashed out at the critical coverage of NTV, then the country’s most popular television channel, during a meeting with relatives of the submariners. ” They lie ! They lie ! he said, according to two journalists who witnessed Putin’s eruption. “There are people on TV today who are screaming louder than anyone and who over the last 10 years have destroyed the very army and fleet that people are dying in today.”

Soon after, he complained to Venediktov about his radio coverage. The journalist says he received similar complaints from the last Soviet leader, Mikhail Gorbachev, and his successor, Boris Yeltsin, but they just let off steam while letting journalists work freely.

“If Gorbachev and Yeltsin believed the media was an institution of society, Putin sincerely believed and now believes it is a tool,” Venediktov said. said in a recent interview. “That’s what he told me. He said it was either a tool in the hands of power or a tool of the owner.

Putin would later bring NTV under state control. And he regularly cracked down on the independent media, which he despised not only for their criticism but also for the platform they offered potential challengers. He managed to bring all but Dozhd, Novaya Gazeta and Echo of Moscow under state or pro-Kremlin ownership.

Even though new online media have sprung up in recent years, the screws have kept getting tighter.

At investigative newspaper Proekt, editor-in-chief Roman Badanin and his team revealed the Kremlin’s decision to crush opposition leader Alexei Navalny, the Kremlin media boss has probed Alexei Gromov and its tight control over Russian television, and showed the extent of Russian political interference in Africa and Bolivia. They too corruption discovered under Putin’s regime identified an alleged former mistress of Putin and the child he allegedly fathered.

Around 2019, Proekt journalists noticed that even reliable sources in the government were becoming hostile.

“Something started to change in their minds,” Badanin said. “They started treating us like enemies, like spies. In some cases, we clearly felt it was like the Cold War for them.

Faced with Putin’s wartime censorship, a Nobel laureate fights to keep the truth alive in Russia

In June 2021, Proekt was the first media to be designated as “undesirable” and banned from publication in Russia. Authorities said Badanin and several other journalists were “foreign agents.” Dozens of others have obtained the same label since then.

“I believe journalism can still make a difference, change the situation in Russia for good,” said Badanin, who in July 2021 left Russia and evacuated his staff. He founded Agentstvoa collaboration of journalists targeted by the Kremlin, and is on scholarship at Stanford University.

Venediktov was another journalist labeled as a foreign agent. “That means I’m toxic,” he said. “I lost my job. I lost my business.

Putin put an efficient and loyal technocrat, Sergei Kirienko, in charge of curbing the internet and crushing online outlets. Today it is lead the Kremlin campaign to annex and integrate parts of eastern Ukraine.

Russian journalists and editors now working outside the country are critical, according to Badanin, who believes they are the reason the Kremlin has failed to crush independent journalism. “Despite all the repression, despite all the repression, the ratings are not going down,” he said. “So thinking about it, I’d say they didn’t succeed.”

Dozhd restarted its broadcasts from Latvia in July, supported by YouTube, crowdfunding and grants from foundations. Even though authorities block his website in Russia, he is viewable on many cable networks around the world and has 3.37 million YouTube subscribers. More than half of them live in Russia.

“I think it’s our mission to reach as many viewers as possible in Russia to spread the real news about what’s happening at the same time,” said Dzyadko, now its editor. He remains personally cautious, although the flood of death threats he and his wife received in late February after their cellphone numbers were posted online has subsided.

Russia sentences investigative journalist to 22 years for ‘treason’

Novaya Gazeta Europe launched in April. To continue, the staff must fundraise between reporting and writing the stories. Martynov hopes readership will grow in the coming months as the outlet continues to cover the war and Russia’s worsening economic problems due to international sanctions.

“The main illusion in Russia, I think, is that at some point there will be normal life again and at some point Putin will probably win or the war will be somehow over,” he said. -he declares. “And that, miraculously, people will end up in pre-February 24 Russia. I think that’s the most dangerous illusion.”

Natalia Abbakumova contributed to this report.

War in Ukraine: what you need to know

The last: Russian President Vladimir Putin announced a “partial mobilization” of troops in an address to the nation on September 21, describing the move as an attempt to defend Russian sovereignty against a West that seeks to use Ukraine as a tool to ” divide and destroy Russia”. .” Follow our live updates here.

The fight: A successful Ukrainian counteroffensive has forced a major Russian retreat into the northeastern Kharkiv region in recent days, as troops fled towns and villages they had occupied since the early days of the war and abandoned large quantities of military equipment.

Annexation referendums: Organized referendums, which would be illegal under international law, are set to take place September 23-27 in the breakaway regions of Luhansk and Donetsk in eastern Ukraine, according to Russian news agencies. Another organized referendum will be organized by the Moscow-appointed administration in Kherson from Friday.

Pictures: Washington Post photographers have been in the field since the start of the war. Here are some of their most powerful works.

How you can help: Here’s how those in the United States can help support the people of Ukraine as well as what people around the world have donated.

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