1. Skip to content
  2. Skip to main menu
  3. Skip to more DW sites

Russia's independent media outlets dwindling

March 3, 2022

Media outlets in Russia have to call the war against Ukraine a "special military operation." Journalists who try to resist face harsh consequences. The latest casualty is Russia's best-known independent radio station.

Anti-war protesters in St. Petersburg, Russia
Several reporters who covered anti-war protests like this one in St. Petersburg have been arrested across RussiaImage: Dmitri Lovetsky/AP/dpa/picture alliance

It sounds like something out of George Orwell's dystopian classic "1984," but it is a bitter reality for Russian journalists: In their coverage of Russia's war against Ukraine, they are no longer allowed to use certain words such as war, invasion and attack, as announced by Roskomnadzor, the Russian government's media watchdog agency.

Those who spread "false information," according to the Kremlin, are also liable to prosecution. This so-called "false information" includes, among other things, the statement that the Russian army is attacking civilian targets in Ukraine. All lies, according to Moscow ― people should only believe "correct" information, which comes solely from official state sources.

But every day the rest of the world sees new footage of destroyed residential buildings in Ukrainian cities like Kharkiv, where dead bodies are pulled from the rubble.

The Russian government is trying to ban reporting on this by all means.

"Putin and his apparatus are at war, and the media is supposed to follow," explained Christopher Resch, press officer at Reporters Without Borders in Berlin.

Deadly rocket attacks on Kharkiv

Access restrictions and fines for unwelcome reports

Media outlets who defy the strict censorship and report on the war in Ukraine with independent facts face harsh consequences.

Novaya Gazeta was among the media outlets to be hit. The daily is known for the investigative work of its reporters; editor-in-chief Dimitry Muratov received the Nobel Peace Prize in 2021.

On Friday, Novaya Gazeta published a bilingual edition in Russian and Ukrainian.

"We do not recognize Ukraine as an enemy and Ukrainian as the language of the enemy. And we will never recognize this," Muratov said, explaining the move.

The Kremlin has initiated legal action against the newspaper. On Saturday, authorities announced that Novaya Gazeta, the online television station Dozhd (TV-Rain), the radio station Ekho Moskvy, which is known to be critical of the government, and seven other media outlets were reporting on the deaths of Ukrainian civilians and the shelling of Ukrainian cities by the Russian army, which according to the Kremlin amounts to spreading false information.

If these "false" reports were not removed, Russian authorities said, access to the media would be restricted, and they would also face a fine of up to 5 million rubles (about €42,000/ $46,000, as of March 3).

The end of Ekho Moskvy

The first threat has already been carried out. TV-Rain and Ekho Moskvy were forced to halt broadcasting. On Thursday, the next blow for independent journalists followed: The board of directors of Ekho Moskvy decided to shut the station down for good.

Ekho Moskvy was in an unusual situation: Although it reported independently and had many liberal voices on the air, it belongs to the state-affiliated Gazprom Media holding. In the past, observers had been surprised that Ekho Moskvy had still been allowed to do what they did. Now Gazprom has pulled the plug on the station.

"It's unbelievable," said Tamina Kutscher, editor-in-chief of award-winning website Dekoder, which translates reports by independent Russian media into German.

Ekho Moskvy has reached millions of people in many regions of Russia since 1990, she said, but "even Ekho is not untouchable."

"We could quietly, without any restrictions, report for the Russian public on what was going on, could express our point of view," Alexander Plushev, an anchor and show host at Ekho Moskvy, told DW.

But then came Russia's invasion of Ukraine.

"We called a war a war, and not a 'special military operation,'" Plushev said. "I was doing so till my last broadcast. I know that the guys who worked in the morning programs did the same."

Now, after more than three decades of independent reporting, Ekho Moskvy no longer exists.

"The number of independent media is getting smaller every day," Resch said.

Case in point: Shortly after the news about the end of Ekho Moskvy spread, TV-Rain announced it would temporarily suspend operations

"We need strength to... understand how we can work from here. We really hope that we will return to broadcasting and continue our work," the channel's general director, Natalya Sindeeva, said in a statement published on the channel's website.

'The strategy now is terrorizing the civilian population'

'Thick carpet of disinformation and propaganda'

Kutscher told DW that a "thick carpet of disinformation and propaganda" has been covering Russia since the beginning of the fighting in eastern Ukraine in 2014. What's going on right now, she said, is not a new development. 

But since Moscow invaded Ukraine a week ago, the situation has become much worse for Russian independent media.

"I don't even want to imagine what else we can expect," Kutscher said. "With this increasing escalation of the war that we're seeing right now, where the aggression is getting harsher, bloodier and more violent, the repression inside [of Russia] is also increasing. The two go hand in hand."

Russian police carry a protester away by the arms and legs
Russian police arrest anti-war protesters at demonstrations across the country, like this one in Moscow.Image: Sefa Karacan/picture alliance

Television as the main source of information

Websites of independent media that are banned in Russia but still active, can be accessed from abroad ― and from within the country via VPNs. A "virtual private network" disguises the user's IP address so that neither Internet providers nor the government can see which websites he or she is visiting. And if the VPN server is located in a country that has not blocked access to TV-Rain, for example, the user in Russia can still get his or her independent information.

Deutsche Welle's Moscow bureau was shut down by the Russian government  before the invasion of Ukraine. Now access to the DW website has also been blocked in Russia. As of Friday, users in the country can no longer access the websites of DW, the BBC, the independent platform Meduza and the US-funded Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty without using a VPN or taking other steps to circumvent the blackout. 

That process, of course, is not as easy as just turning on the TV. And TV news, which according to Reporters Without Borders are firmly in state hands, are still the most important source of information for many Russians. A 2018 poll by the independent Levada Center polling institute showed that half of all Russians believe what TV newscasters tell them.

"Let's take older people: For some, TV has been the main source of information for maybe 30 years. It's difficult then to get independent information because it just doesn't exist in that kind of environment," said Resch of Reporters Without Borders. Staying on top of what is actually going on "requires you to actively search for information, and of course that makes it harder."

'You have to know whom to trust'

Those who turn to social media for information face difficulty in Russia as well. Facebook and Twitter are partially or completely blocked. Telegram continues to work, but is used by both pro-Russian and pro-Ukrainian sides for propaganda.

"There's a lot of misinformation there," Resch said.

Whether users of the platform see false statements or are provided with actual facts depends entirely on who they listen to.

As Resch put it: "You have to know whom to trust."  

Those who don't have fewer and fewer opportunities with each passing day in Russia to still get independent information about the war.

Edited by: Nicole Goebel

This article was updated on March 4, 2022, to add information about Russia restricting access to the websites of DW and other media.

Carla Bleiker
Carla Bleiker Editor, channel manager and reporter focusing on US politics and science@cbleiker