The media landscape in Russia had plenty of press freedom challenges before the war in Ukraine but has since turned even darker.
In early March, the Echo of Moscow and TV Rain, two of the few remaining critical news outlets, were forced to shut down, having been accused by authorities of spreading misinformation about the conflict.
The last nationwide independent newspaper, Novaya Gazeta, suspended operations on March 28, at least for the duration of the war.
Al Jazeera spoke to journalist Alexey Kovalyov, who has seen both sides of the media story, having previously worked at the state news agency RIA Novosti. He is now an editor at the independent news website Meduza (Russian for Jellyfish), which was founded and based in Riga, out of Russia’s reach.
Following the recent crackdown on dissent, he like many other Russians fled, in his case from Moscow to Latvia.
Al Jazeera: How would you characterise Russia’s media scene, and how has it changed?
Alexey Kovalyov: The short answer would be that apart from state propaganda, there is no media landscape in Russia. There are just a couple of very small, independent media outlets that are not yet blocked by the censor ministry, and we’re not even talking about the national ones.
Soon enough, maybe in a couple of weeks, there won’t be a single local news website that is not blocked by the Russian censorship ministry. That’s where we’re at. (Editor’s note: The Federal Service for Supervision of Communications, Information Technology and Mass Media, abbreviated as Roskomnadzor, is Russia’s media monitoring agency)
This has been building up for, I’d say about 10 years, since 2012 when [President Vladimir] Putin decided to press this sector, and it’s been going downhill ever since. And here we are now. I think 150, maybe close to 200 journalists left Russia fearing extreme persecution, and I’m one of them.
Al Jazeera: How did you leave Russia?
Kovalyov: In early March, about a week into the war, we started hearing rumours about the impending of martial law which would surely mean the suspension of most civil liberties, including freedom of information, the freedom of the press, and freedom of assembly.
That was a turning point. In March, I was still making plans, like I signed up for a treatment at my local clinic.
But as I was doing this my wife, who is uncannily prescient, told me: ‘You’re a fool, we should be packing our bags now and buying tickets!’
There was still a bit of denial. I was saying ‘Come on, let’s leave it to tomorrow.’ And she said: ‘No, we should be leaving right now, today, like today.’
There weren’t any tickets available from Moscow that we could afford because, at that point, no EU country would accept flights from Russia, and the only destinations that were available were Yerevan and Istanbul. Tickets were several thousand bucks a pop.
We booked a cab to the nearest border crossing point and drove for 10 hours to Riga. Here we are, building our life from scratch.
Al Jazeera: There was a wave of resignations from state-run TV channels after the war began. What does this tell us? And what happens to them after they resign?
Kovalyov: We can look at what happened in Belarus in 2020 when most self-respecting professionals also quit from the Belarusian state propaganda. This didn’t cause it to implode because they hired straight from the bottom of the barrel. There were still people out there willing to do this dirty job for an amount of money.
I guess the same thing will happen to Russian state propaganda because now it’s already starting to look a lot less professional and slick than it used to be, but it has momentum because you don’t need that much experience. There are thousands of people who are just doing technical jobs in the media, not doing any real journalism.
Most of them, from my experience working in the state news media, don’t really put much thought into what they’re doing or why. They’re just collecting their salary and waiting for retirement, that’s it.
Al Jazeera: To what extent does state media influence public opinion on the war?
Kovalyov: Although it’s increasingly clumsy and self-contradictory, it’s terrifyingly effective. There are quite a few heartbreaking accounts of people living in Ukraine under the Russian bombs, they’re calling their family members in Russia and telling them they’re being bombed by the Russian army, and their own family members refuse to believe them.
They say it couldn’t be true, because, ‘We see on television, the Russian army’s only striking military targets. So you must be lying, or you’re delusional.’ It’s happening in millions of families, including mine.
There was this really bizarre episode I saw yesterday, a video of a young Russian prisoner-of-war caught by the Ukrainians. He’s a kid in his early 20s and he’s being interrogated by these Ukrainians, and they’re giving him a phone to call his mother in Russia.
This young Russian prisoner is calling his mother, and instead of comforting him or asking if he’s safe or coming home anytime soon, she just unloads this crazy monologue about war being inevitable because Ukrainians are inventing this virus in their biolabs to poison all the Russians. And he’s like: ‘Mum, please stop, what are you talking about?’ This is not a one-off, bizarre incident; it’s happening everywhere.
Al Jazeera: What do you think of the global media’s coverage, outside Russia?
Kovalyov: What I’m seeing is pretty solid stuff. The reporters who are on the ground, risking their lives, are doing a very decent job.
Al Jazeera: Do you agree with other countries shutting off Russian state TV, such as RT? Could it be argued that it’s counterproductive, that Western audiences might want to see what the Russian state line is?
Kovalyov: If you want to see what the Russian state line is, you really just need to go on the Russian foreign ministry’s website and see their latest statement or press briefing, because RT’s coverage does not deviate an inch.
I went to check out how they’re doing on those YouTube alternatives (Editor’s note: RT moved to Rumble after being blocked by YouTube) that are still hosting them and they only have a fraction of their former audience.
And if you look at the most-viewed RT clips that remain on YouTube, the content was really random, generic clickbait stuff. People weren’t really there for the Russian point of view, they were there to watch some disaster porn, that kind of stuff. It doesn’t really have anything to do with freedom of speech or an alternative point of view.
Al Jazeera: Might the pressure on the press ease after the war, or do you fear it will become more repressive?
Kovalyov: What war? (laughs) No, if anything it will become even more repressive because we are losing this war, and the state media will scramble to work around whatever Putin’s cooked up.
This interview was edited for clarity and brevity.