The Russian media is a powerful propaganda machine. The Russian media has been under tight government control for the past few decades, and since Russia invaded Ukraine on February 24, 2022, many journalists and editors have become mere mouthpieces for the government line.
But several recent examples of journalistic defiance show that the Kremlin cannot guarantee full control over Russian journalists during a war. At the same time, Russians’ access to online information about the war constantly casts doubt on the Kremlin’s lies about the invasion.
Some Russian journalists have left the country since the end of February, while others have quit their jobs.
“For the most part, even in the state media, people with normal moral principles work. Most of them are not aware of what is happening now – all this hell and horror, ”said Lilia Gildeyeva, an NTV commercial television host, who quit due to the invasion and left Russia.
For now, most Russian journalists, many of whom are clearly motivated by fear of arrest or worse, publicly agree with President Vladimir Putin’s lies about the war. And it is certainly not clear whether the exodus of individual journalists will lead to systemic changes in Russia.
But even in authoritarian states, journalists can have power.
I believe that if enough journalists take a serious risk and relinquish control of the Kremlin, they can significantly undermine Russia’s war with Ukraine by telling the public the true story of what is happening. I base this on a 30-year study of the Russian media, from how state control of the media has decimated nascent political parties to how the internet is challenging Kremlin control.
‘Stop the war’
Russian television news editor Marina Ovsyannikova entered the state-owned Channel One news program on March 14, 2022, and held a sign behind the announcer that read “no war” in English and “stop the war, don’t believe propaganda” in Russian. Her unprecedented protest was cut short in seconds, but it illuminated a crack in the façade of pro-state Russian media.
Since the invasion, Russia has passed new laws making it a crime to make claims of “war” or “invasion” in Ukraine, punishable by up to 15 years in prison. The law applies to all journalists, whether they work for government or commercial news outlets. Indeed, the Kremlin controls all major media outlets, whether they are state-owned or run by commercial enterprises.
In the first week of March alone, Russia blocked about 30 Russian and Ukrainian independent media outlets.
So far, the Russian media has largely followed the Kremlin’s line. For example, Russian television shows a constant barrage of brave Russian soldiers, grateful Ukrainians and citizens demonstrating their support for Mother Russia. Scenes of devastation and desperation in Ukraine are blamed on Ukrainian forces.
While Putin relies heavily on Russian journalists to spread lies — such as that Ukraine is committing genocide — and to justify the war, he cannot control the first war live. Citizens can still post videos online that are watched by millions, despite the fact that the Russian government blocked many internet platforms, including Facebook and Twitter, after the invasion.
Unless Putin can enforce a ban on virtually the entire Internet, digitally savvy Russians will continue to find ways to share information through virtual private networks and the Tor browser that allow users to bypass government restrictions.
TV is getting less popular
A study by the Yuri Levada Analytical Center, a Moscow-based independent research organization, shows that television in Russia is fading away.
According to the Center, if in 2013 88% of Russians used television as their main source of news, then in 2021 this figure dropped to 62%. During the same period, the percentage of Russians using social media as their main source of news rose from 14% to 37%.
The generation gap is stark: while 86% of Russians aged 55 and over turned to television for news in 2021, only 44% of those aged 18 to 24 did the same.
Russian television has a high production value, with news and political talk shows that would look familiar all over the world. The content of the news, however, is purely authoritarian: forces friendly to the Kremlin are praised, enemies are vilified, and inconvenient facts are ignored or distorted.
Russian television, for example, falsely reported that US agents “seek to use anti-Russian biological weapons” and that “Ukraine’s leaders are obsessed with acquiring nuclear weapons” to attack Russia.
Disinformation does not necessarily deter viewers, especially in a country where distrust of the West in general and America in particular is at its peak.
Focus groups in Russia show that people, especially older viewers, are more likely to seek solace and patriotism in television than objective information. Those looking for more factual information are more likely to go online.
Russia cracks down on the media
Journalists in Russia have sometimes challenged the regime by reporting the truth about situations ranging from election fraud to the war in Chechnya.
Since Putin took office, all Russian journalists have faced tightening restrictions, including arrests, attacks and killings of those who directly defy the Kremlin. At least 58 Russian journalists have been killed since 1992, according to the Committee to Protect Journalists.
Two of the remaining independent journalism voices fell silent in early March 2022. The Ekho Moskvy radio station and the Dozhd TV channel, known as Dozhd, stopped broadcasting after Russian authorities blocked access to their websites.
Other media chose self-censorship, and many journalists fled the country.
There are other signs that the Kremlin’s influence over the media is waning: several senior Russian journalists have resigned since the invasion, including veteran reporters and prominent TV hosts.
These journalists have been silenced and unable to work in Russia, but their refusal to go along with the heightened propaganda regime shows that Putin’s control over journalists is not absolute.
Ukrainian military propaganda
Ovsyannikova’s protest on television was an isolated event. She has been fined $215 by a Russian court for violating protest laws, and she is at even greater risk as she is accused of being a British spy.
Even those who have been involved in state propaganda for years feel that military propaganda against Ukraine has gone too far, as Ovsyannikova said. Other journalists who have been loyal to the Kremlin for years or even decades may now also question their role.
This means that the Kremlin is fighting a war for media control on two fronts.
When loyalist journalists disobey, or even decide to speak out against the war, it could have a significant impact on Russian TV-watching audiences.
At the same time, the Kremlin cannot stop the inevitable proliferation of online content that shows what is really happening in Ukraine.
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