It's one of the sad facts of life that journalists often do their best work in places that offer the least welcoming environments. When protections for free speech and independent institutions are available, the job of the press is easier, but so is the temptation to get lazy and forget that your job is to make the politically powerful uncomfortable. The real test comes when calling bullshit on the state might land you in jail, or worse. Russia's invasion of Ukraine in an atmosphere of authoritarianism has the country's few remaining independent journalists displaying remarkable courage as they suffer the consequences for honestly doing their work.
"A criminal case has been opened against a Siberian journalist whose news website published content critical of Russia's invasion of Ukraine," The Guardian reported last week. "Mikhail Afanasyev, chief editor of Novy Fokus in the Russian region of Khakassia, was arrested by security forces on Wednesday over the website's reporting on 11 riot police who allegedly refused deployment to Ukraine."
Afanasyev isn't alone. According to Paris-based Reporters Without Borders, after largely muzzling the independent national press, Russian authorities are going after a growing list of local journalists who still dare to challenge official narratives about the ongoing attack on Ukraine. Targets include Sergei Mikhailov and Olga Komarova, the owner and editor respectively of Listock, a small newspaper in Siberia's Altai region; Andrei Novashov, who reports for Sibir Realii an affiliate of Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty; Yana Yanovskaya, editor of Parma-Novosti in the Urals; and Isabella Evloyeva, editor of the website Fortanga in Ingushetia. They've been fined, jailed, and/or subject to house arrest for criticizing the invasion, for publicizing inconvenient facts, or just for using the forbidden word "war" to characterize the conflict.
"The Russian authorities' crackdown on independent media is escalating at breakneck speed," commented Marie Struthers, Amnesty International's Director for Eastern Europe and Central Asia. "Evidently unsatisfied with merely blocking critical news sites or forcing reporters into exile, the Kremlin now seeks to incarcerate journalists who report on anti-war protests or Russian soldiers who refuse to fight in Ukraine."
Easing the Russian government's crackdown are changes to the law that essentially make the official version of events mandatory. Using the "wrong" language or voicing criticism of military actions and government policy now carries serious penalties.
"Under an amendment adopted on 4 March, any Russian or foreign person can be sentenced to up to 15 years in prison for spreading 'false information' about the Russian armed forces," Reporters Without Borders notes. "Many independent media such as Novaya Gazeta, The Bell, Taiga.info, VPost and Prospekt Mira responded by announcing that they were terminating their coverage of the war in Ukraine and deleting previous stories about it in order to protect their journalists from criminal prosecution."
Forced off the air, TV Rain, which was often critical of Vladimir Putin's regime, exited to footage of the ballet Swan Lake. "The station's entire staff resigned live on air, signing off with the final statement 'no to war' before the renowned Russian ballet played out on the screen, as it did in August, 1991 during an attempted coup which signalled the beginning of the end of the USSR," pointed out Edwina Seselja of Australia's ABC.
But even going quiet is no guarantee of being left alone. Dmitry Muratov, who suspended Novaya Gazeta rather than convert it into a government mouthpiece, was splashed with red paint aboard a train. "The male attacker shouted, 'Muratov, this is for our boys,'" reports the BBC.
Muratov was co-awarded the Nobel Peace Prize last year (along with Maria Ressa of the Philippines) for defending "freedom of speech in Russia under increasingly challenging conditions" in the words of the Norwegian Nobel Committee. Last month, Muratov said he would auction off the Nobel medal to raise money for Ukrainian refugees—a move that may well have kept him on the Russian government's shit list.
Some Novaya Gazeta reporters continue their efforts via a Telegram channel, just as TV Rain's Ekaterina Kotrikadze and Tikhon Dzyadko maintain a presence on YouTube. Other journalists have taken up positions outside the country with western media outfits. That includes Marina Ovsyannikova who famously protested the war on-air at Russia's Channel One and now freelances for Germany's Die Welt. They may continue to find an audience among their countrymen, though Russian authorities are making every effort to make sure it's much diminished.
Independent voices in Russia have paid, and continue to pay, a high price for criticizing the regime and for honestly reporting on its military adventure in Ukraine. They've been fined, jailed, and abused for printing and uttering words that offend people in political power.
For American journalists accustomed to life in a troubled but still relatively free environment, what Russians have suffered should serve as a reminder about what it means to actually engage in journalism. Safer and better-compensated than their counterparts in Russia and other authoritarian countries, media types in this country too often envision themselves as protectors of the state, or at least of factions within the political class. They attack watchdogs like Julian Assange for inconveniencing the authorities, belittle rivals' stories for embarrassing a favored political tribe, and even call for government investigations of people who allegedly spread "propaganda."
If nothing else, isn't the example of Russia and its beleaguered independent voices all the evidence needed to show that, no matter how stupid you think others' opinions might be, using them as excuses for state action is extraordinarily dangerous? If officialdom puts that idea into effect, Americans will find out if they're made of stuff as tough as Mikhail Afanasyev and Marina Ovsyannikova.
Last year, when the Norwegian Nobel Committee recognized Muratov and Ressa, its members emphasized that the awards were made "in a world in which democracy and freedom of the press face increasingly adverse conditions." Not just Russia, but the planet as a whole, is becoming an unwelcome environment for those who scrutinize the powers-that-be. Reversing that unfortunate trend requires journalists who still have some freedom of action to worry less about what people with differing opinions think, and more about what government officials with coercive power do.