Not toeing the Kremlin’s line

Despite threats, regional media in Russia is resurgent and inspiring audiences tired of the ‘official version’ broadcast by the nationals. Tina Burrett surveys the changes afoot.

Unbowed: Koza Press editor-in-chief Irina Slavina’s children lead her funeral procession, Nizhny Novgorod, 6 October 2020. MIKHAIL SOLUNIN/TASS/ALAMY

After the collapse of communism, Russian audiences enjoyed a decade of no-holds-barred reporting from their news media that delivered quality investigative journalism alongside sex, scandal and sensationalism. Today, however, the Kremlin’s control over national media is a stranglehold. Vladimir Putin, president from 2000, has put paid to Russia’s nascent press freedom. In the current climate, as state-sponsored Russian trolls turn their propaganda against voters abroad, a new generation of journalists in the country’s regions are not giving up and are leading a renaissance in public-interest reporting at home.

Regional issues are increasingly significant in Russia – from contested elections in the Far East to the effects of climate change in Siberia. Local independent news organizations and bloggers are providing critical coverage for audiences beyond Moscow’s urban elite. Many are online and supported by their readers, helping them to survive despite government restrictions and frequent attacks against journalists.

Take, an independent news site based in Novosibirsk, Russia’s third-largest city.

This year it has covered important local environmental stories including the pollution of Lake Baikal, protests against a coalmine in Kuzbass and the disastrous effects of Siberia’s forest fires and floods. Chief Editor Vasiliy Volunkhin says small outlets ‘can cover taboo topics like LGBT+ rights and feminism that the big news agencies can’t, because we’re independent from state officials. Federal journalists often cite us. And although we are a regional publication, we often get a national audience.’

Local media attention can also help solve problems for ordinary citizens. Vesma – covering Russia’s Far East – recently reported on the million-rouble ($13,500) bank loan inherited by a young boy when his mother died. Following Vesma’s coverage, Serbank cancelled the loan. A Vesma journalist explains: ‘Our readers are loyal because we cover their problems. People who read us often change their views, especially older readers who were previously loyal to Putin.’

Targets for harassment

Online journal 7X7 covers news in Russia’s North-Western, Central and Ural regions. It identifies as ‘horizontal media’, giving space to activists and bloggers writing about local issues ignored by state-backed national broadcasters. Its 2,039 bloggers have covered stories ranging from the conditions in penal colonies under Covid-19 to a volunteer-run cooking school for disabled adults in Krasnoyarsk. For their activism the journal’s reporters are often targeted by the authorities. In 2018, 7X7 was fined an unprecedented 800,000 roubles ($13,000 at the time) by state media regulator Roskomnadzor for publishing an interview discussing drug legalization, a move 7X7 Director Pavel Andreev saw as an attempt to ‘close a news outlet providing a forum for people with different opinions.’ 7X7 launched a crowdfunding campaign to pay off the fine and raised almost the entire amount within the first few hours, demonstrating their popular support.

Irina Slavina self-immolated in front of a police building, her last Facebook post reading: ‘I ask you to blame the Russian Federation for my death’

Journalists at Kaliningrad-based newspaper Novyye Kolyosa have also faced harassment for reporting on corruption by local officials, including Putin ally Governor Anton Alikhanov. In November 2017, Editor-in-Chief Igor Rudnikov was arrested on extortion charges that his colleagues dismissed as politically motivated. Rudnikov, who was hospitalized with concussion and a broken rib after his arrest, spent almost 600 days in jail. Following his release, local publishers refused to work with Novyye Kolyosa and the newspaper is now only available online. Rudnikov, who sold his apartment to keep Novyye Kolyosa going, suspects pressure from Governor Alikhanov, stating that ‘the authorities are angry because we disclose human rights violations and corruption and we do it in a straightforward manner.’ Despite ongoing threats, Rudnikov continues undeterred, investigating corruption in Kaliningrad, including cases of human trafficking and slave labour.

Russia’s increasingly vibrant media scene is also evident on YouTube. Yuri Dud (pronounced ‘dude’) draws large audiences for his YouTube interviews with guests banned from state television, such as opposition icon Alexey Navalny. His documentaries on Stalin’s labour camps, a topic buried in the Putin era, and on Russia’s hidden HIV epidemic have over 20 million hits each. Access to YouTube, however, is in question after Russia’s parliament passed a bill in December 2020 allowing Roskomandzor to block foreign websites that ‘discriminate against Russian media’ and to levy fines on platforms that don’t delete state-banned information.

Although audiences for Russia’s alternative media are dwarfed by those for state-directed broadcasters, they are growing, especially among the young who are leading a wave of anti-Putin protests. Online broadcaster Dozhd TV deploys laconic Russian humour to draw young audiences to its political programming, including its weekly Fake News show that satirizes state television disinformation. In August 2019, Dozhd opened its broadcasts to non-subscribers to publicize rallies in favour of opposition candidates disqualified from running for Moscow’s city legislature. The next day its studios were raided by police for a tax audit.

Overcoming distrust, inspiring solidarity

By blending watchdog reporting with community engagement, regional reporters are helping overcome the distrust and cynicism deliberately fostered by Kremlin-backed media to discourage civic and democratic participation. The growing number of regional protests coincides with this renaissance in local journalism. Coverage by regional media is helping local activists find allies across the country. 7X7’s reporting on protests against the construction of landfill sites in Arkhangelsk to accommodate Moscow’s waste was picked up by other regional media and inspired solidarity demonstrations nationwide.

In July 2020, Sergei Furgal, who two years previously had beaten the Kremlin-backed candidate to become governor of Far Eastern Khabarovsk, was arrested on politically motivated murder charges, prompting the largest and longest-running protests of Putin’s more than 20 years in power. Vesma’s livestream of the protests reached ‘an audience as large as for some federal media’, says one of its journalists. Such alternative media coverage bypassed state television’s boycott of the Khabarovsk protests, which then spread to Omsk, Novosibirsk and Vladivostok. One survey showed more than 80 per cent of Russians saw reports about the demonstrations.

By blending watchdog reporting with community engagement, regional reporters are helping overcome the distrust and cynicism deliberately fostered by Kremlin-backed media

Regional news outlets have been important alternatives to state television’s censored reporting on Covid-19. National broadcasters’ upbeat coverage of new hospitals with plentiful supplies of protective equipment were contradicted by local media reports of overworked medical staff and poor sanitation. 7X7 reported that the Komi region northeast of Moscow had become an early epicentre for the virus after a doctor with symptoms of Covid-19 infection kept working at his hospital. The police hauled in 7X7’s director to investigate how the news had leaked. But in a rare victory for the independent press, the Kremlin forced the local health minister and governor to resign. Regional media also reported on how the authorities pressurized pathologists to manipulate coronavirus-mortality statistics. Urals-based Znak posted a recording of the Governor of Lipetsk telling subordinates: ‘Change your numbers otherwise they’ll think badly about our region.’ By bringing together information from across the country, local media revealed the scale of the coronavirus crisis in Russia, forcing the state to respond.

Legislative cudgels

But the more usual response is to try to shut down such reporting. In March 2020, the government amended its Fake News Law to muzzle journalists criticizing its handling of the pandemic. In October 2020, Yana Toporkova, a journalist for the independent news agency Regions Online, was arrested in her apartment in Yablonovskiy. Her laptop, notes and phone were seized, and she was driven more than 300 kilometres for interrogation relating to disinformation about the pandemic posted on Instagram, to which she claims no connection.

In December 2020, Russia amended its law on ‘foreign agents’ to allow individuals, including journalists, to be jailed for up to five years for ‘engaging in political activities in the interests of a foreign state’. 7X7 reporter Sergei Markelov was one of the first added to a list of ‘foreign agents’ after freelancing for a US-funded broadcaster. In response, 7X7 released a documentary made by Maxim Polyakov on abuses of the law, which included interviews with other journalists labelled ‘foreign agents’. Polyakov says the law aims to characterize independent journalists as ‘enemies of Russia’. But he found his interviewees ‘love their work, their cities and their country. It is real patriotism that motivates them to ask uncomfortable questions.’

In October 2020, Irina Slavina, editor-in-chief of Koza Press in Nizhny Novgorod, was accused of co-operation with Open Russia – founded by exiled-Kremlin critic Mikhail Khodorkovsky – an association its director denies. At dawn, police raided Slavina’s apartment. Later that day she self-immolated in front of a police building, her last Facebook post reading: ‘I ask you to blame the Russian Federation for my death.’

Russia’s harsh counterterrorism laws are another tool. Abdulmumin Gadzhiev, editor of Chernovik that covers Dagestan in the Northern Caucasus, has languished in pre-trial custody since June 2019. The state alleges he ‘participated in a terrorist organization’ based solely on an article he published about an Islamic charity. In a show of solidarity following his arrest, all three major Dagestan newspapers ran the front-page headline: ‘We are Abdulmumin Gadzhiev.’

In September that year, authorities indicted freelance journalist Svetlana Prokopyeva on groundless charges of ‘justification of terrorism’ for a radio broadcast about a 17-year-old boy who had detonated a bomb in a Federal Security Service building in Arkhangelsk. Prokopyeva argued that growing up in a repressive state could be a factor in radicalizing Russian youth. In an open letter published by numerous Russian news outlets, Prokopyeva charged that, ‘[The security services] call an opinion a crime… making a criminal out of a person simply doing her job.’

Camaraderie among independent media in the face of government harassment is making it harder for the Kremlin to shut them down and shut them up than earlier in Putin’s presidency. While it is unlikely that Putin and his cronies will be ousted from the Kremlin any time soon, Russia’s independent media are laying the foundations for a more informed society. The façade created by Putin’s propagandists is crumbling and Russians are increasingly willing to acknowledge that the emperor has no clothes. Something is stirring in Russia and when change does come, it will likely start in the country’s regions.