Since Russia invaded Ukraine in February 2022, almost all independent media have been banned, blocked and/or declared “foreign agents” or “undesirable organisations”. All others are subject to military censorship.
All privately owned independent TV channels are banned from broadcasting, except for cable entertainment channels. Many western media such as Euronews, France 24 and the BBC are no longer accessible in the country. The media regulator, Roskomnadzor, has blocked access to most independent news sites including Meduza, the most widely read, and Novaya Gazeta, the most emblematic. Those that survive have belonged to allies of the Kremlin for a few years, or they are forced to strict self-censorship, because of banned subjects and terms. Radio stations are in the same situation.
Since the start of the Covid-19 pandemic, President Vladimir Putin has seemed increasingly isolated from the outside world and even more so since the start of his war against Ukraine. Only a very restricted circle now has access to him, and the last collective decision-making institutions, such as the Security Council, are no longer really collaborative. Parliament has become a chamber for recording decisions made by the Kremlin. The official discourse, relayed by an omnipresent propaganda, is mainly based on accounts of Russia’s “historical grievances” and conspiracy theories.
No journalist is safe from the threat of serious charges under vaguely worded draconian laws that were often adopted in haste. Many laws relating to freedom of expression that had been adopted in recent years – including defamation and “fake news” laws – were amended in order to incorporate them into the Penal Code at the start of the Covid-19 pandemic. The invasion of Ukraine gave a new impetus to this process, with parliament hastily adopting amendments under which “false information” about the Russian armed forces and any other Russian state body operating abroad is now punishable by up to 15 years in prison.
The radical sanctions imposed on Russia by Western democracies in response to the invasion of Ukraine have suddenly severed much of the Russian economy from Europe’s, with which it was closely integrated. This could lead to a very long and extremely deep crisis. Beyond censorship – which has forced many media outlets to close and has impoverished the few remaining independent journalists, forcing them to change professions or go abroad – Russia’s regional media is among the first victims of the economic crisis, which has forced businesses to reduce their advertising budget.
Although the internet connection rate is very high, almost two-thirds of Russians get their news mainly from television, which is controlled by the government, and from Russian social media such as VKontakte. Subjects such as homosexuality and religious feelings have gradually become off limits for the media under Vladimir Putin, who has encouraged a certain conservatism in Russian society.
In recent years, in addition to heavy sentences and even torture suffered by some journalists, mainly at the regional level, the frequent use of fines and short-term detentions under various pretexts have been added to the arsenal of systematic intimidation used against journalists. The media are also under threat of arbitrary inclusion on the list of “foreign agents”, a status that comes with heavy bureaucratic hurdles and legal risks, and the list of “undesirable organisations,” which criminalises any mention of – or cooperation with – the targeted media. Faced with additional risks incurred since the start of the war in Ukraine, many journalists working for independent media outlets have chosen exile. The authorities keep up the pressure on those who leave by “visiting” family members or by convicting them in absentia.