Vladimir Putin’s government continues to call Russia’s February 24 invasion of Ukraine a “special military operation” and has instituted harsh punishments for media outlets that do not hew to the state line. However, some foreign-based media have bypassed Russian censorship in various ways, providing Russian citizens vital access to facts about the war.
Are Russian media able to report on the war in Ukraine?
It is nearly impossible. The few remaining Russian independent media outlets with any sizeable followings, notably TV Rain and the radio station Echo of Moscow, shut down following Putin’s signing of the March 4 “fake” news law, which threatens imprisonment for any journalist who deviates from the Kremlin’s portrayal of the conflict in Ukraine. Many Western outlets shut down their Russia bureaus as well, depriving their audiences of access to news from within the country.
Meanwhile, Facebook, Instagram, Twitter, and other foreign social media platforms that disseminate Russian-language information are blocked, and TikTok temporarily banned users in Russia from uploading new content. But YouTube and the encrypted message app Telegram, which are used heavily by state propaganda sources, are reportedly still available and widely used in Russia.
The March 4 law followed years of mounting government pressure on media outlets, and surveys have shown that most Russians get their news from state television. Official media typically downplay the severity of the conflict in Ukraine while echoing Kremlin falsehoods about what it calls a peacekeeping operation against Ukrainian aggressors.
Still, news of the invasion appeared to spur protests in cities across Russia, leading to an estimated fifteen thousand arrests in the first three weeks of the war. In addition, thousands more Russians reportedly fled the country as the war intensified and tough Western-backed sanctions kicked in, though that could mean fewer dissenting voices remain within Russia.
Can Russian-language media based abroad still reach Russian audiences?
Yes, but this has become more of a challenge. Since the invasion, the government has blocked the Russian-language websites of media outlets including the BBC, Latvia-based Meduza, the U.S.-funded Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty (RFE/RL) and Voice of America (VOA), and Germany’s Deutsche Welle. These organizations were already under increasing Kremlin pressure from a “foreign agents” law instituted last year and had largely closed their bureaus in Moscow due to the draconian media law signed in March.
Despite the crackdown, these media outlets say they had large Russian audiences in the pre-invasion months. RFE/RL, which began broadcasts in Russian in 1953, said in a news release that the extensive network of websites run by its Russian Service attracted a monthly average of more than twenty million page views in 2021, and that its videos were viewed nearly three hundred million times that year on Facebook, Instagram, and YouTube. Its YouTube videos have attracted millions more views since the invasion began. The BBC said its Russian-language news website reached more than ten million visits per week in the early phases of the war.
It’s not clear whether they can replicate these audiences given the current censorship, but just this week, data from Apple’s App Store and Google’s Play Store showed that twelve of the top twenty apps in Russia were virtual private networks (VPNs), which disguise a user’s location and help access region-restricted content, and Telegram was the fifth-most-downloaded app.
What workarounds are they trying?
- RFE/RL’s efforts to circumvent censorship include giving Russians access to free VPNs such as nthLink and Psiphon, which are supported by the U.S.-financed Open Technology Fund. The station also encourages users to download the anonymous Tor Browser to access a range of sites hidden from censors and continues to send its newsletters, such as The Week in Russia, to email addresses in Russia.
- Versions of the BBC’s websites are accessible through Tor and Psiphon. The longtime British broadcaster also announced shortwave stations for Ukraine and parts of Russia, though it is unclear how many people can access the signals.
- Twitter and Facebook created privacy-protected versions of their services that work through Tor.
- Major daily newspapers in Denmark, Finland, and Sweden this month announced a service in which their reporting will be regularly translated into Russian and disseminated on social media.
- The New York Times and Washington Post launched channels on Telegram to share their English-language reporting on the war.
What’s at stake in this information war?
The intensified media clampdown reflects the Kremlin’s concern about the impact that real news would have on Russian citizens. Experts say exposure to objective reporting on the military campaign, including the indiscriminate attacks on civilians, could be influential to the Russian public.
The efforts underway by trusted agencies such as the BBC, RFE/RL, and VOA in some ways hearken back to the Cold War era when, primarily as broadcasters, they developed major news-gathering operations to try to reach audiences behind the Iron Curtain. Research has shown that those broadcasts played an important role in informing both regime elites and citizens in the former communist bloc.
Russian media experts also express concern that intensifying Western-led international sanctions on Russia could have the unintended effect of severing many Russians from the internet at a time when they crave straight information. “It’s gonna be pretty grim, and it’s pretty unfair to young Russians who would want to maintain some connection with this world that now rejects them,” Meduza’s Alexey Kovalev said in an interview with the University of Oxford’s Reuters Institute for the Study of Journalism. “I hope the outside world finds a way to incorporate young Russians into the global community.”
Antonio Barreras Lozano contributed to this report.