On March 4, 2022, the Russian parliament adopted repressive anti-media legislation in a rapid procedure, aiming to criminalize any independent reporting or social media mentions of Russia’s war against Ukraine. On the same day, Vladimir Putin signed the bill into legislation. One year on, Russian independent journalism survives, says Galina Timchenko, an IPI member and general director of Meduza, Russia’s most popular online media, in conversation with the International Press Institute.
In January, Meduza was declared an “undesirable organization” by Russian authorities, a step beyond “foreign agent” status and one that in practice outlaws the media’s operations in Russia. It was the next step in authorities’ efforts to silence Meduza. One year ago, access to the media’s website was already blocked, a decision that came as authorities were hastily attempting to cut out independent voices from the Russian media landscape.
“Collaborating with Meduza is now a criminal offense”, explains Galina Timchenko. “But, theoretically, the law on undesirable organizations is not the worst thing that happened to us: it’s been a year since Russia introduced wartime censorship, according to which we [at Meduza] risk between two and 15 years of prison, simply for carrying out our job as journalists. Russia now has laws related to so-called “fake news” about the army, “discreditation” of the army and others. Even using the word “war” [is forbidden]. “Undesirable organization” status is just [part of] another repressive law.”
A year of censorship
The timeline of the past year’s events, which ran in parallel to Russia’s unfolding invasion of Ukraine, could hardly have been any faster. On the very first day of Russia’s full-scale invasion, February 24, 2022, Russia’s internet regulator and censor Roskomnadzor issued a warning to independent media, ordering them to “use only information and data from official Russian sources”, or face access blocks and fines of up to five million rubles (approximately 62,000 euros).
Then, in just over a week, legislators and the Russian president created and enacted new laws to formalize the changes, with a fresh bill presented to parliament on March 3. Three new “sister articles” were added to the Russian criminal code punishing those spread “fake news” about the Russian army, “discredit” the armed forces, or call upon foreign powers to sanction Russia. All three articles carry fines and heavy prison sentences.
In the following days, Roskomnadzor blocked dozens of renowned media outlets, such as TV Rain, RFE/RL or Echo of Moscow. Other outlets, such as Novaya Gazeta (headed by Nobel Peace Prize laureate Dmitry Muratov) or The Bell decided to cease war-related publications altogether, seeing no possibility for honest reporting given the new limitations. Some, such as Znak.com, ceased operations permanently.
In less than a week, Vladimir Putin introduced wartime censorship, as Russia’s independent voices describe the new situation. One year on, authorities continue to repress independent media and journalists, most of whom now work abroad out of fear for their own security. Many independent media had already been declared “foreign agents”. Now, a new instrument in Russia’s playbook is the so-called law on “undesirable organizations”, which until recently was mainly used against non-governmental and donor organizations. In late January, Meduza, Russia’s most popular online media outlet, was one of the first to be labelled with this status.
In an interview with IPI, Meduza General Director Galina Timchenko explains what this means for her team, and why she believes repression in Russia will, sadly, only get harsher in the future.