More than 18 months after Russia launched its full-scale invasion of Ukraine, independent media inside Russia has all but disappeared.
Many Russian journalists have fled, and now report from exile in countries such as Germany, Georgia, Lithuania and Kyrgyzstan, among others. Adjusting to their new surroundings, these reporters and newsrooms are navigating an uncertain future for independent Russian-language media.
Last week, ICFJ hosted three Russian journalists in exile to discuss how they left Russia, their reporting from abroad, and the security and censorship challenges they continue to face today. Sara Fischer, the senior media reporter at Axios, moderated the panel.
“The oppression of the Russian media was happening before the war started. We experienced it in our personal lives previously, and now [world] leaders can see it,” said L*, who currently lives in Germany. “We are all facing criminal punishment in our country.”
Here’s more from what the journalists discussed about reporting in exile:
Immediately after Russia launched its full-scale invasion of Ukraine in February 2022, independent journalists scrambled to flee the country. Those who remained were arrested or had their newsrooms shut down for not toeing the Kremlin line when reporting on the war.
“When [the invasion] started, no one knew what rules [to follow]. Our team did not know if they were safe,” said Z, who runs an anonymous Telegram channel that delivers news to Russian audiences from abroad.
G, who is now based in Lithuania, explained how the move into exile occurred in three waves for his outlet. After the start of the full-scale invasion, the newsroom’s senior managers left first. “At that time, our digital site was our main channel to connect with our audiences [and] it was blocked by Russian censorship services. Part of our team, including me, decided to move to Istanbul, then I fled to Lithuania, because we had previously established a legal body in Lithuania,” G said.
The second wave happened in May 2022, in response to rumors that Putin would soon announce mobilization to conscript more men into the army. This forced G’s publication to relocate most of their male staff abroad.
From October to December 2022, his outlet initiated a third wave. The publication gave all remaining staff members in the country the choice to move to Montenegro, a NATO member that does not border Russia. Staff that decided to remain in-country became anonymous freelancers – and no longer employees – to ensure their safety.
Although the journalists said they feel safer abroad than had they stayed in Russia, threats remain. “I do feel safe, because I don’t print my name on what I edit,” said L, though noting: “We know that there were three poisonings of Russian journalists in Germany.”
The importance of anonymity
Russia has targeted independent media through repressive legislation on foreign agents and undesirable organizations, in particular. Journalists who write for an organization deemed “undesirable” can easily find themselves in prison for their work, while outlets and journalists classified as “foreign agents” are subjected to onerous auditing and labeling requirements that drain resources.
Journalists in exile have kept the names of their colleagues still inside Russia anonymous to protect them, as a result. “If our journalists are in Russia, we would like to continue covering their work, and we would like to continue them not being in jail,” said L. “[Anonymizing writers] is upsetting, it's very sad. It's not what we’re proud of, but it’s how we can continue working.”
The need for anonymity, Z explained, has led many journalists to write for his Telegram channel: “We had the opportunity for [journalists] to work, to get money, to work without censorship, but to be anonymous. It's good for them, they won’t be recognized as a foreign agent, they won’t be recognized as an undesirable organization.”
This approach comes with drawbacks, however. “Journalists are ambitious people, and sometimes they are frustrated when they get their material out with 100,000 views, and no one knows who is the author of these stories,” said Z.
Exiled media outlets also anonymize their sources to allow them to speak freely. For instance, many oligarchs privately disagree with the war, G said, but will not say so publicly. “The Russian elite is divided, but really do not want to show that they are divided,” G said. “We have sources who agree to talking if we keep them anonymous. Fact-checking is our problem then.”
For what little media remains in Russia, even discussing the course of the war can invite censorship. “You can’t say anything that disagrees with what the Minister of Defense said. For example, if you tell a story about Bucha, you will be criminalized, you will be punished in prison for six years,” G said. “It is announced as ‘fake news,’ and you can find criminal prosecution.”
Some editors inside the country avoid covering the war altogether. Exiled outlets, in contrast, aren’t forced to self-censor, G explained: “We show that you can cover the most major story of the last decade [...] but you have to leave Russia, because in that situation you can work.”
Journalists writing from exile struggle to break past Kremlin war propaganda and censorship. “We’ve already reached all of the audience that we can, and we can’t find new readers,” said L. “All of the people who oppose the war are reading us, and those who are not, who support Putin, they just don’t don’t have the chance to read our posts.”
Russian journalists can’t change everyone’s minds on the morality of the invasion but that doesn’t mean their work doesn’t have impact, L added.
“It’s not the mission of journalism to make people consider the war a threat if they think [the invasion] is a good thing. It is our job to report on what is happening,” L said. “We work for the future of social journalism – not just the war, but its social issues and social impact in Russia.”
The relative freedom with which journalists in exile can operate has been the most welcome benefit of relocating abroad.
“Before the war, even independent journalists knew the rules of the game. Many independent journalists tried to follow the rules, but after the war no one follows the rules anymore. It became impossible to follow the rules,” said Z.
“There are no red lines for independent journalists anymore.”
*For their safety, the journalists’ identities have been kept anonymous in this article.