One Year in: How Putin's war has changed journalism in exile | DW Global Media Forum | DW | 16.02.2023
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One Year in: How Putin's war has changed journalism in exile

Since the beginning of the war, 1,000 Russian journalists have left their country. DW spoke with the editors-in-chief of Novaya Gazeta Europe, Dozhd, and Meduza about the changes to journalism in exile in the past year.

Symbolbild | Kriegsberichterstattung

According to the International Federation of Journalists (IFJ), at least 12 journalists and media workers were killed while covering the war in 2022, when Russia launched its unprovoked aggression against Ukraine

Alexey Kovalev crossed the border between Russia and Latvia on foot in the middle of the night. This was in early March 2022. All he had were the bags on his back, which he had packed in panic, and his dog on a leash.

He had just had enough time to call his parents. By the time he arrived in the capital Riga, the website of the media company he had been working for, the independent news outlet Meduza, was blocked. 

Kovalev left behind the remnants of his former life, his home in Moscow, and with all this, any semblance of normalcy.

Like other journalists critical of the Kremlin, Kovalev had chosen to refer to the large-scale Russian invasion of Ukraine as a "war"— rather than a "special military operation," a fig-leaf term coined by Russian authorities. As the conflict in Ukraine now enters its second calendar year, investigative reporters like Kovalev and his ilk are finding themselves changing the face of exile journalism.

RSF: Exodus affects entire media houses

"There have always been journalists who fled and ended up in exile," Christian Mihr of Reporters Without Borders (RSF) told Deutsche Welle (DW). In the past year, however, he said, there has been a growing awareness in Germany that this new exodus is somewhat different, as it affects entire media houses. "Complete editorial boards of well-known outlets like Novaya Gazeta, Meduza, or many other smaller media had to flee; they need different support than individual reporters."

At least 1,000 Russian journalists have left their country in the 12 months since Moscow's war in Ukraine began, according to the recent report by the Net Freedoms Project ("Setevye Svobody"). A study by the JX Fund shows that the main hubs where "hundreds of journalists and media workers" from Russia now work and reside are Berlin, Tbilisi, and Riga.

More than 100 journalists from Russia on humanitarian visas in Germany

Since the spring of 2022, there have been virtually no independent media in Russia. In March, Russian authorities restricted online access to DW. They had previously banned DW's Russian service from broadcasting and had revoked its journalists' accreditation.

Russian media regulator Roskomnadzor said access to the websites of the Russian-language editions of the BBC, Meduza, and the US-funded Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty (Svoboda) had also been "limited." 

Russian exiles and the war in Ukraine

Even the New York Times, which had reported from Moscow through the Russian Revolution, two World Wars, and the Cold War, had to announce the pullout of its bureau. As part of "Operation Collateral Freedom," RSF succeeded in unblocking access to 18 censored websites in Russia, including those of DW's Russian service, Meduza, and the Moscow Times, as well as those of smaller outlets such as Caucasian Knot, Doxa, and Cherta.

Since February 24, Reporters Without Borders has helped 106 journalists and 53 of their family members from Russia relocate to Germany, Mihr said. All 106 journalists are in Germany on humanitarian visas. Another list of names was recently compiled and is awaiting approval from the German Foreign Office and the German Interior Ministry. "There are 11 media makers and three family members on this list," Mihr added.

"We have to hold out long enough"

Kirill Martynov

Kirill Martynov

"We have set up a micro-office in Berlin," Kirill Martynov, 41, editor-in-chief of Novaya Gazeta Europe (NGE), told DW from Riga. However, due to technical formalities, its official launch date is not scheduled until later this year. "We expect it to take place before April," he said.

On April 1, Novaya Gazeta will turn 30, Martynov explains. Three decades will have passed since it was founded — in part with money from former Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev. Martynov, who worked as Novaya Gazeta's political editor between 2014 and 2022, steers clear of talking about the newspaper in the past tense, even though a court in Moscow has recently revoked its media license.

Legally, Novaya Gazeta Europe (NGE) is completely independent of its Moscow counterpart. NGE was founded in Riga just 10 days after Russia's Novaya Gazeta was forced to cease its activities in March 2022. "I would have preferred not to miss a day," Martynov said.

The outlet works with about 60 journalists. It is funded in part by donations from an NGO based in Switzerland. Since May, the paper has actively been expanding its YouTube channel but also continues to produce a print edition. "The day the war ends, I would love to see it on newsstands. That would be a truly historic moment."

The editorial team is in contact with several 'shadow reporters' in Russia — a term Martynov uses for journalists who do their work quietly and anonymously. "Hopefully, we will all hold out long enough ... By then, the Russian dictatorship itself will be in trouble and will have other things to worry about than us.”

"I've been carrying this feeling of dread inside me"

Tikhon Dzyadko, TV channel Rain - Fernsehsender Rain

Tikhon Dzyadko

Other Russian news organizations in exile are also setting up newsrooms across Europe. Tikhon Dzyadko, editor-in-chief of Dozhd/TV Rain, told DW that after initially broadcasting from Latvia, "about 70 percent of our staff will move to Amsterdam. The rest will stay in Riga and Tbilisi."

The move follows a series of turbulent developments in December, when the chairman of Latvia's National Electronic Media Council (NEPLP) Ivars Abolins called the station a "threat to national security and social order." As a result, the channel's license in Latvia was quickly revoked. The decision was made after Dozhd's then-presenter, Aleksey Korostelev, faced severe criticism for making ambiguous remarks about the Russian military. Even though he later apologized for his words, the anchor was fired within hours. "His remarks were so unacceptable that we simply had to dismiss him, no matter how unpleasant and hard it was for all of us," Dzyadko explained.

Russian interview with Zelenskyy

Despite all these challenges, the channel continues to reach its monthly audience of up to 22 million users on YouTube, with 60 to 70 percent of them living in Russia. It also airs on cable networks outside Russia.

Asked whether journalists risk losing insight into actual developments on the ground when working from abroad, Dzyadko says that "even those who live in Russia don't have the full picture. Their view is so often clouded by fear." He says that the black-and-white reality of reporting means there can no longer be undertones, "especially in war, especially when it comes to distinguishing between aggressor and victim," he added.

Dzyadko was among the first four Russian journalists to conduct an in-depth interview with Volodymyr Zelenskyy after the outbreak of the war. The Ukrainian President spoke about the humanitarian disaster in Mariupol, about corpses lying on the streets and sidewalks in Bucha.

"When I heard him speak, I was horrified. I've been carrying this feeling of dread deep inside me all year," Dzyadko said. "I felt anger. The urge to do everything in my power to make sure this ends. That it doesn't end the day after tomorrow, but today."

"Then something truly bad happens, but you're ready to bounce back"

The list of banned media in Russia is long — and its editors are often the last to find out that the government has outlawed their publication. 

Ivan Kolpakov, Chefredakteur von Meduza

Ivan Kolpakov (Andrej Vasilenko/Monocle)

When Russia's Prosecutor General designated Meduza as an 'undesirable' organization, Ivan Kolpakov, its editor-in-chief, only learned about this from a report carried by the Russian news agency TASS. "It was a feeling of relief," Kolpakov remembers, "that feeling when you've been waiting for something truly bad to happen for a very long time, and then it becomes a reality, but you're ready to bounce back."

Meduza is not allowed to operate in Russia under threat of criminal prosecution. Even Russian citizens who share links to Meduza's content or donate money to fund its activities can be prosecuted.

When the war censorship laws were introduced in Russia on March 4, nearly 70 journalists were working for Meduza. But only a few of them had to resign to protect themselves and their families, Kolpakov said. "We 'lost' three colleagues. Due to personal circumstances, they had to stay in Russia and quit. That was terrible and broke my heart."

"Privileged" to tell the truth

The start of the war marked a turning point for most Meduza reporters in Russia; they had crossed "their personal Rubicon" in February 2022, Kolpakov said. By early March, just about all of Meduza's staff in Russia had left the country — including investigative reporter Alexey Kovalev.

Many had to take their relatives, their kids, and their pets with them, traveling through third countries. After all these troubles, Meduza's editors still had to work non-stop to bring news from the front lines in Ukraine.

"I hope we never have to go through something like that again," Kolpakov said. Yet at the same time, he said, he felt privileged to do his job and make a difference. Every time he spoke with his fellow Ukrainian journalists, he learned that they kept on working under heavy shelling, without internet and with problematic access to power generators in cold, dark cities.

A heavy burden to bear

Kolpakov, like Dzyadko, was one of four Russian reporters who got to speak with the Ukrainian President Zelenskyy in March. Soon thereafter, Russia’s media watchdog, Roskomnadzor, publicly warned him not to publish the interview. 

Kolpakov recalled that he simply laughed off this suggestion and told Roskomnadzor officials that they had "now made the best publicity for this piece." But in general, Kolpakov hasn’t had much to laugh about in the past year. He stressed that suffering the strain between the threat of criminal prosecution and the fear that relatives back in Russia could be 'taken hostage' at any time was already taxing.

"Coming from a country responsible for the war of aggression is also a heavy burden," he added. Reflecting on his perception of journalism in exile, Kolpakov said he would like to stay positive.

"But my prediction is rather pessimistic. The lion's den of media projects will not survive this exile."

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