Amid war, a critical Russian radio station goes silent

A crackdown on critical media and protesters grows following Moscow’s invasion of Ukraine.

A placard featuring an image of Russian President Vladimir Putin and reading "We are with him for the sovereignty of Russia! And you?" is seen left in front of the Russian State Duma building in central Moscow on February 28, 2022. - The Russian army said on February 28, 2022 that Ukrainian civilians could "freely" leave the country's capital Kyiv and claimed its airforce dominated Ukraine's skies as its invasion entered a fifth day. (Photo by Natalia KOLESNIKOVA / AFP)
A placard featuring an image of Russian President Vladimir Putin and reading 'We are with him for the sovereignty of Russia! And you?' is seen left in front of the Russian State Duma building in central Moscow on February 28, 2022 [Natalia Kolesnikova/AFP]

Names marked with an asterisk* have been changed to protect identities.

On Tuesday night, one of Russia’s best-known radio stations went silent.

Listeners tuned in to Echo of Moscow, one of the handful of critical news outlets, free from government control, remaining in the country, suddenly heard nothing but the hissing noise of static.

In the days since Russian President Vladimir Putin ordered an invasion of Ukraine on February 24, officials have begun a crackdown on independent media and protesters who have come out in their thousands to decry the war, which the Kremlin will only term as a “special operation”.

A statement by Russia’s internet censor board, Roskomnadzor, warned that referring to the military campaign as an “invasion,” “attack,” or “declaration of war” would lead to the offending website being blocked.

The authorities have accused independent media outlets, such Echo of Moscow, TV Rain (Dozhd) and Novaya Gazeta of spreading misinformation about the conflict, threatening to fine them up to five million rubles ($60,000).

Dmitry Muratov, Novaya Gazeta’s Nobel Prize-winning editor-in-chief, has said he will not accept official information about Ukraine, and will rely on his own correspondents and newsroom to verify the facts.

During the weekend, Rain’s editor-in-chief Tikhon Dzyadko and his wife, TV presenter Yekaterina Kotrikadze, were bombarded with prank calls and threats to their family members after their personal phone numbers were published online.

Then, on Monday night, the Prosecutor General’s Office demanded that Roskomnadzor restrict access to Rain and Echo of Moscow, accusing them of “calls for extremist activity, violence”, as well as “deliberately false information regarding the actions of Russian military personnel as part of a special operation to protect the DPR and LPR [Donetsk and Luhansk People’s Republics].”

While Echo of Moscow was taken off the airwaves completely, Rain’s live YouTube stream remains online.

Editors of Echo of Moscow’s website have said they will challenge this decision in the courts on the grounds of political censorship, which is forbidden in the Russian constitution.

In a televised address to his viewers, Dzyadko insisted his station abides by the law and would continue to stay on air as long as possible, while challenging the decision in the courts.

Both stations’ websites can still be accessed through a VPN.

“Putin lost the war against Ukraine, Putin lost the war with the whole world,” Lev Schlossberg, of Russia’s opposition Yabloko party, said in a statement shared with Al Jazeera.

“Putin has lost everything. The victims and destruction will never be forgiven. The truth about it is unbearable for him. He is furious and very dangerous. Therefore, the last independent media is being destroyed.

“Putin’s Russia is entering the terminal stage, when everything living in our country, everything that resists Putin, will be destroyed.

“As long as you can write about it, you can talk about it, you can show it, it can and should be done … Free speech continues to sound, although with a noose around its neck. We will be judged by what we did in the days of the catastrophe.”

Meanwhile, Russian authorities have taken a harsh stance against what they consider misinformation about the conflict in Ukraine.

On Monday, lawmakers proposed a new bill condemning those who share what they call “fakes” and misinformation with a prison term of up to 15 years.

This includes data on supposed casualties.

Official figures of those killed or captured have not yet been released, although local politicians have admitted their constituents have suffered losses.

Ukraine has said more than 350 people have died in less than a week of war, including children, but Al Jazeera has been unable to independently verify the toll.

Commenting on the clampdown, the head of Russia’s Human Rights Council, Valery Fadeyev, said that while he does not watch Rain, “as for Echo of Moscow, it’s true there were different points of view expressed on the website, but with a predominance of opponents of the special operation in Ukraine.

“These included pacifist appeals from the professional Russian intelligentsia.”

Despite being the chairman of Russia’s human rights body, Fadeyev is a member of Putin’s United Russia party and has been unsympathetic to rough treatment of protesters in the past.

Social media sites

The information war has also spilled over to social media networks.

Roskomnadzor announced on Friday it was restricting access to Facebook after the company blocked accounts linked to Russian media.

Twitter was blocked shortly afterwards, with Roskomnadzor saying it was taking the step to limit the “dissemination of unreliable, publicly significant information on the subject of a special military operation in Ukraine”.

Meanwhile, Western nations have cracked down on the Kremlin-aligned TV channel Russia Today, or RT, taking it off the air. YouTube has also blocked RT’s livestream.

Back to Russia, this means there is effectively a blackout of the most popular online platforms, although it is still possible to access them by using a VPN.

It is noteworthy to add that anti-war protests, which have been continuing since Thursday, have also been organised on social media.

Since the invasion was launched on Thursday morning, nearly 7,000 people had been detained at anti-war actions and protests according to OVD-Info, an independent human rights media project which monitors political persecution.

These include Daniel* who was detained along with his friend Natasha* in a large Russian city, which Al Jazeera will not name.

“I was in the cells for 16 hours,” he told Al Jazeera by phone.

“This is now a common experience for many, and there will be more and more such experiences. There were seven of us who were arrested for breaking COVID restrictions, as it were, and placed together in a cell with two concrete ledges that passed for beds. We were given one mattress, one blanket and a pillow with a pillowcase covered in yellow spots.

“Together with us was placed, shall we say, a gentleman of ill fortune, who was yelling at the ‘garbage’ [derogatory slang for police in Russia] for taking away his shoelaces. He was drunk and threw his unlaced boots at the door, fell asleep and snored loudly, then woke up and said if he was [Russian President Vladimir] Putin, he would have bombed everything to hell.”

Daniel was in court by the following day, where he saw Natasha, who had been released during the night. By the time he got home, he heard the news that Kharkiv in eastern Ukraine was being bombarded by Russian missiles and several people had been killed.

“I’ll still keep coming out,” Daniel said, words that would likely please imprisoned opposition leader Alexey Navalny.

His team on Wednesday called on soldiers to disobey orders, and on the public to keep attending peace rallies, post on social media and take part in civil disobedience, promising to pay fines for anyone who ended up being detained.

Source: Al Jazeera