By Karlos Zurutuza
MADRID, Nov 29 2023 (IPS)
At 400 kilometres north of the Arctic Circle, Russian journalist Giorgi Chentemirov says he had already been out of the country for six months when the Russian Ministry of Justice labeled him a “foreign agent.”
“It is today, with the war in Ukraine, that we see all this disinformation machinery operating at full capacity, but we need to remember that it was created by Vladimir Putin back in 2005,”
Alfonso Bauluz, president of Reporters Without Borders Spain
“I was informed of this development last March. I won’t say it came as a surprise to me but it still made me worried,” the journalist explains to IPS by telephone from Kirkenes, a Norwegian town with just over 4,000 inhabitants bordering Russia.
Chentemirov, 38, is one of many journalists who have been forced to leave the country in the past two years. He labels Moscow’s invasion of Ukraine — in February 2022 —as a “turning point” for the press in Russia.
“The Censorship Law was passed under which it was considered a crime to talk about ‘war’ in Ukraine instead of ‘special operation’. We could only cite official sources, excluding even those from the UN. Going off script, even today, can lead to long prison sentences,” recalls the Russian journalist.
Beyond his prominence in Russian media, Chentemirov also served as the president of the Union of Journalists of Karelia, his regional jurisdiction. “Despite the subservience of the Union of Russian Journalists is, we were very independent, we were never silent,” he underscores.
Chentemirov speaks of a country where censorship is also exercised by blocking countless web pages and social networks and where many editors live under the pressure that an out-of-tone article may force them to fold.
“Unfortunately, real journalism in Russia involves signing with pseudonyms to protect your identity and publishing for media outlets that are not in the country,” explains Chentemirov.
Today he works for the Barents Observer, a digital media that has collaborated with Russian journalists for 20 years and has recently added three other Russian journalists to its staff.
“It is key to have a Russian-speaking media that can call a war ‘war’, and that covers topics banned in Russia such as certain civil initiatives, the political opposition, the brutality of the Ukrainian front, the lies of the Kremlin…,” Thomas Nilsen, editor-in-chief of the Barents Observer, explains to IPS over the phone from Kirkenes.
Over the years, they have gained deep experience in avoiding Russian censorship. In 2019, however, it became the first Nordic media to be blocked in Russia. Nilsen claims to have resources today to overcome obstacles on the Internet.
His readers are also forced to use alternative ways to access information.
“As most foreign media outlets that do real journalism are banned in Russia, millions access the Internet through tools like VPNs,” explains the Norwegian journalist.
“Climate of terror”
The Committee to Protect Journalists has denounced the classification of dozens of media outlets and more than 100 journalists as “foreign agents” in Russia since 2021.
The NGO which promotes the rights of journalists worldwide, points to at least 19 Russian journalists currently in prison. The most recent two were sentenced on November 17, to sentences of 9.5 and 10.5 years under “fabricated” charges according to the CPJ statement.
Russia has fallen to 164th place (out of 180) in Reporters Without Borders’ World Press Freedom Index.
“It is today, with the war in Ukraine, that we see all this disinformation machinery operating at full capacity, but we need to remember that it was created by Vladimir Putin back in 2005,” Alfonso Bauluz, president of Reporters Without Borders Spain, explains to IPS from Madrid.
Bauluz regrets the “impossibility” of disagreement in Russia. He points to “insane” regulations that, he stresses, are pushing many independent journalists into exile and forcing those who stay to keep a low profile.
Among the initiatives launched by RSF, the one led by the German section of the NGO stands out: two million euros have been raised to give economic viability to newsrooms in exile and to assist in evacuating journalists.
However, harassment is not exclusive to Russian journalists. There are two Americans among those imprisoned in Russia and many more foreign correspondents based in the country have been forced to leave.
“Before the war in Ukraine it was already difficult and dangerous to work in the country. Today, however, we can say that journalism no longer exists in Russia,” Marc Marginedas, correspondent in Moscow for eleven years for the Periódico de Catalunya, told IPS by telephone.
He speaks from his native Barcelona after leaving the country last year. Other than a “climate of terror” that, the journalist says, the press in Russia lives in, Marginedas describes the Kremlin’s communication policy as an “orgy of fake news.”
“There´s also the administrative offensive: visas that need to be renewed every three months, the bureaucratic nightmare of renting an apartment and obtaining registration from the Migration Service…,” explains the Spanish journalist.
Everything is more painful when it’s your house you can’t return to. After seven years working for the BBC, the British public broadcaster, Moscow reporter Elizaveta Vereykina left Russia a few weeks after Moscow launched its offensive in Ukraine.
“I worked for the channel for a few months in Turkey and Latvia. Then the BBC asked me to go back because they needed people in Russia and I did, in May 2022,” Vereykina tells IPS in a telephone conversation from Tromso, in Norway´s far north. It was barely four months until she decided to leave the country again.
“The situation was getting worse every day and I felt it was dangerous. People were afraid to talk to us because it was a foreign channel. Besides, it was increasingly difficult to travel within the country and even do things as simple as making a reservation at a hotel,” she recalls.
Her colleague at the BBC, the veteran British journalist Sarah Rainsford, had been forced to leave the country in August, 2021. “Even before the invasion it was clear that things were beginning to change, that we were heading towards a real witch hunt,” adds the Russian reporter.
After passing through the United Kingdom and Georgia, Vereykina accepted the Barents Observer’s invitation to join its staff last February. Without losing sight of current events in her country of origin, she also focuses on the threats suffered by the delicate Arctic ecosystem.
“I am in love with this part of the world and, today, I enjoy the freedom of being able to choose my own topics,” she says, just before adding that she does not see a future for herself in Russia.