Brave Russian Journalists Defy Putin’s Powerful Propaganda Machine

March 25, 2022Coffee or Die
A woman looks at a computer screen watching a dissenting Russian Channel One employee entering Ostankino on-air TV studio during Russia’s most-watched evening news broadcast, holding up a poster which reads as “No War” and condemning Moscow’s military action in Ukraine in Moscow on March 15, 2022. – As a news anchor Yekaterina Andreyeva launched into an item about relations with Belarus, Marina Ovsyannikova, who wore a dark formal suit, burst into view, holding up a hand-written poster saying “No War” in English. Photo by AFP via Getty Images.

A woman looks at a computer screen watching a dissenting Russian Channel One employee entering Ostankino on-air TV studio during Russia’s most-watched evening news broadcast, holding up a poster which reads as “No War” and condemning Moscow’s military action in Ukraine in Moscow on March 15, 2022. – As a news anchor Yekaterina Andreyeva launched into an item about relations with Belarus, Marina Ovsyannikova, who wore a dark formal suit, burst into view, holding up a hand-written poster saying “No War” in English. Photo by AFP via Getty Images.

The Russian media is a powerful propaganda machine. Russian media outlets have been closely controlled by the government over the past several decades, and since Russia invaded Ukraine on Feb. 24, 2022, many journalists and editors have been turned into mere mouthpieces for the government line.

But a few recent examples of journalistic defiance show that the Kremlin can’t guarantee full control over Russian journalists during the war. At the same time, Russians’ access to online information about the war constantly challenges the Kremlin’s lies about the invasion.

Some Russian journalists have left the country since the end of February, while others have resigned from their jobs.

“For the most part, even the state media employ people with normal moral standards. Most of them are not all in with what’s happening now – all this hell and horror,” said commercial television NTV anchor Lilia Gildeeva, who resigned over the invasion and has left Russia.

powerful propaganda machine
Russian journalist Zhanna Agalakova addresses the media during a press conference at the Reporters Sans Frontieres headquarters in Paris on March 22, 2022. Zhanna Agalakova, until her resignation this month, was a journalist with Russias state-controlled Channel One broadcaster. She quit in protest at the war being waged by Russia in Ukraine. Photo by Christophe Archambault / AFP via Getty Images.

For now, most Russian journalists, many apparently driven by fear of arrest or worse, are publicly going along with President Vladimir Putin’s lies about the war. And it’s certainly not clear if the exodus of individual journalists will result in systematic change in Russia.

But even in authoritarian states, journalists can have power.

I believe that if enough journalists take a serious risk and reject the Kremlin’s control, they can significantly undermine Russia’s war on Ukraine by telling the public the true story of what is happening. I base this on 30 years of studying the Russian media, from how state control of media destroyed nascent political parties to the way the internet challenges Kremlin control.

Russian President Vladimir Putin’s regime has made his country one of the worst places on the planet to be a journalist. As of 2021, Russia ranked 150 out of 180 countries in the Press Freedom Index compiled by international nonprofit Reporters Without Borders. Photo by Mikhail Klimentyev/Sputnik/AFP via Getty Images.

‘Stop the war’

Russian television news editor Marina Ovsyannikova walked on the news set of state-run First Channel on March 14, 2022, and held up a sign behind the newscaster that said “no war” in English and “stop the war, don’t believe the propaganda” in Russian. Her unprecedented protest was cut off in seconds, but it illuminated a crack in the facade of the state-aligned Russian media.

Since the invasion, Russia has enacted new laws that make saying there is a “war” or “invasion” in Ukraine a crime punishable by up to 15 years in prison. The law applies to all journalists, no matter whether they work for state or commercial news outlets. Indeed, the Kremlin controls all major media outlets whether they are owned by the state or commercial enterprises.

During the first week of March alone, Russia blocked approximately 30 Russian and Ukrainian independent media sites.

powerful propaganda machine
People march through Oslo on Dec. 10, 2021,in honor of Philippine Maria Ressa and Russian Dmitry Muratov, the recipients of the Nobel Peace Prize. Investigative journalists Maria Ressa of the Philippines and Dmitry Muratov of Russia won the prestigious award for promoting freedom of expression at a time when press freedom is increasingly under threat. Photo by Terje Pedersen / NTB / AFP / Norway OUT via Getty Images.

So far, Russian media are mostly toeing the Kremlin line. For example, Russian television features a constant barrage of brave Russian soldiers, grateful Ukrainians and citizens demonstrating their support for Mother Russia. Scenes of destruction and desperation in Ukraine are blamed on Ukrainian forces.

While Putin relies heavily on Russian journalists to disseminate lies – that Ukraine is committing genocide, for example – and to justify the war, he cannot control the first livestreamed war. Citizens can still post videos online that are viewed by millions despite the Russian government blocking many internet platforms, including Facebook and Twitter, since the invasion.

Unless Putin is able to enforce a ban on virtually all of the internet, digital-savvy Russians will continue to find ways to share information through virtual private networks and the Tor browser, which allow users to bypass government restrictions.

powerful propaganda machine
A woman watches Russian President Vladimir Putin speak on TV. Sergei Mikhailichenko/SOPA Images/LightRocket via Getty Images and The Conversation.

TV becoming less popular

Research by the Yuri Levada Analytical Center, a Moscow-based independent survey organization, shows television is a fading force in Russia.

While 88% of Russians used TV as their primary news source in 2013, this dropped to 62% in 2021, according to the Center. During the same time period, the percentage of Russians using social media as their primary source for news rose from 14% to 37%.

The difference across generations is stark: While 86% of Russians aged 55 or older were turning to television for news in 2021, only 44% of those aged 18-24 were doing the same.

Russian television has high production values, with news and political talk shows that would look familiar worldwide. News content, however, is purely authoritarian: Forces friendly to the Kremlin are praised, enemies are vilified, and inconvenient facts are ignored or twisted.

Following orders from strongman Vladimir Putin, Russia invaded Ukraine on Russia began an invasion of Ukraine Feb. 24, 2022. Russian forces have faced stiff opposition from Ukraine’s military and a wide of economic and diplomatic sanctions from most global powers. Ukraine Ministry of Defense photo.

Russian television, for example, has falsely reported that American agents “seek to deploy anti-Russian bioweapons” and “Ukraine’s leaders are hellbent on acquiring nuclear weapons” to attack Russia.

Disinformation does not necessarily turn viewers away, particularly in a country in which distrust of the West in general and America in particular runs high.

Focus groups in Russia show that people – especially older viewers – often seek reassurance and patriotism, rather than objective information, from TV. Those who seek more factual information are likely to go online.

powerful propaganda machine
Journalists work at the office of Echo of Moscow radio in Moscow on March 3, 2022. The independent Russian radio station Ekho Moskvy, a historic figure in the Russian media landscape, announced March 24, 2022, its self-dissolution, after its ban by the authorities because of its coverage of the invasion of Ukraine. Photo by AFP via Getty Images.

Russia cracking down on media

Journalists in Russia have sometimes challenged the regime to a degree, reporting the truth about situations ranging from rigged elections to the war in Chechnya.

Since Putin took office, all Russian journalists have faced increased restrictions, including arrest, attacks and murder of those who directly challenge the Kremlin. At least 58 Russian journalists have been killed since 1992, according to the Committee to Protect Journalists.

Two of the remaining voices of independent journalism fell silent in early March 2022. The Echo of Moscow radio station and Dozhd TV, known as Rain, went off air after Russian authorities blocked access to their websites.

Other outlets have chosen to self-censor, while many journalists have fled the country.

powerful propaganda machine
Critics of the Kremlin-controlled media question whether Russians are seeing images of widespread destruction in Ukraine. Ukrainian leaders say Russia has bombed civilians indiscriminately, destroying hospitals, schools, refugee columns, and residential neighborhoods. Ukraine Ministry of Defense photo.

There are other signs that the Kremlin’s hold over the media is loosening, as several high-profile Russian journalists have resigned since the invasion, including veteran reporters and prominent broadcasters.

These journalists have fallen silent and have no options for working in Russia, but their refusal to go along with the heightened propaganda regime shows that Putin’s control over journalists is not absolute.

powerful propaganda machine
Marina Ovsyannikova, the editor at the state television show who protested against Russia’s war in Ukraine, is seen after she was fined for her demonstration on March 15, 2022. AFP via Getty Images and The Conversation.

Ukraine war propaganda

Ovsyannikova’s protest on TV was a single event. A Russian court fined her US$215 for violating protest laws, and she is at further risk, having been accused of being a British spy.

Even some who have produced state propaganda for years think war propaganda about Ukraine has gone too far, as Ovsyannikova said she did. Other journalists who have been loyal to the Kremlin for years or even decades may now also be questioning their roles.

powerful propaganda machine
Russia invaded Ukraine on Feb. 24, 2022, but its offensives mostly had ground to a halt by March 24, when Ukraine’s Ministry of Defense released this photo of a smashed Russian supply column north of Kyiv. Ukraine Ministry of Defense photo.

This means the Kremlin is fighting a war for media control on two fronts.

When loyal journalists won’t fall in line, or even choose to speak out against the war, it could have a significant effect on the Russian audience that closely follows television.

At the same time, the Kremlin can’t stop the inevitable spread of online content that shows what’s really going on in Ukraine.

This story appeared first in The Conversation on March 23, 2022. The Conversation is a community of more than 135,400 academics and researchers from 4,192 institutions. 

Read Next: California Man Accused of Assaulting DC Cops Becomes Political Refugee in Belarus

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Coffee or Die is Black Rifle Coffee Company’s online lifestyle magazine. Launched in June 2018, the magazine covers a variety of topics that generally focus on the people, places, or things that are interesting, entertaining, or informative to America’s coffee drinkers — often going to dangerous or austere locations to report those stories.

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