Putin’s media crackdown finds a martyr as Russian TV staff sign off final livestream to tune of ‘Swan Lake’

March 4, 2022, 6:20 PM UTC

Russia’s war in Ukraine is also a war against the press at home.

The Kremlin, saying it fears false information disseminated by enemies of the state, passed a law on Friday through the lower houses of parliament that would increase jail time to up to 15 years for anyone intentionally spreading “fake news” about the military.

While the law has yet to come into force, Russian officials have already been cracking down on media outlets that are operating independently from the state. On Thursday of this week, it kicked the last independently run TV station, TV Rain, or Dozhd, off the air.

In protest, the entire staff of TV Rain, a liberal, youth-focused media outlet often critical of the Kremlin, walked off set after a Thursday night news showing, to the sounds of Tchaikovsky’s Swan Lake. “We need strength to exhale and understand how to work further. We really hope that we will return to the air and continue our work,” the network’s CEO, Natalia Sindeyeva, wrote on social media on Thursday.

The example of TV Rain shows the far-reaching effects of the war in Ukraine. The massive sanctions levied by the U.S. and Western European allies have quickly become an unprecedented kind of economic warfare, while the Kremlin is fighting a media war with local outlets and major tech and entertainment multinationals. Meanwhile, Western social media firms are amplifying accounts out of Ukraine that directly contradict Russian state-controlled media. Independent outlets like TV Rain are caught in the middle.

“I don’t want to cry, because we’ve lived through so much in this life, we’ve dealt with so many difficulties, and we never gave up,” Sindeyeva said. “We very much hope that we will be back on some platform because our work is so important to our audience.”

The lone few

Radio station Ekho Moskvy and TV Rain were both silenced this week after they were singled out in a Telegram message posted by Russian Prosecutor General Igor Krasnov. In the message, he ordered the country’s communications censor, known as Roskomnadzor, to “restrict access” to both media outlets, accusing them of purposefully and systematically disseminating “information calling for extremist and violent acts.”

Krasnov also noted the two outlets were deliberately spreading false information regarding the actions of the Russian military and its “special operation,” referring to Russian President Vladimir Putin’s invasion of Ukraine.

Authorities took Ekho Moskvy radio station, another independent liberal media outlet, off the air on Tuesday, the first time it had been taken off the air since 1991. After it continued to broadcast news on YouTube, its board of directors shut the station down entirely on Thursday.

Dmitri A. Muratov, a Russian journalist who jointly won the Nobel Peace Prize last year for protecting freedom of expression and democracy in Novaya Gazeta, noted his newspaper was on the verge of shutting down as well.

Muratov told the New York Times, “Everything that’s not propaganda is being eliminated.”

Kremlin’s rules

For the new media law to come into force, the amendments must now be approved by the upper house of the Duma before going to Putin to be signed into law. According to Russian officials, false information has been spread by enemies of the Russian state, like the U.S. and its Western allies, in an attempt to create discord among the Russian people.

The divide between what is seen in the West and what is presented in Russian media grows. Most notably, the Kremlin only approves of using the phrase “special military operation” to refer to the war on Ukraine.

Facebook parent Meta barred Russian state media from running ads or making money on its platform last Friday and then doubled down by restricting access to Russian state media outlets RT and Sputnik on its platforms across the European Union. Google similarly banned Russian media from using its ad revenue technology and removed hundreds of YouTube channels and thousands of videos for violating its policies, including videos produced by state-backed media channels RBC, Zvezda TV, and Sputnik.

Russia has already cut access to several foreign news organizations’ websites, including the BBC and Deutsche Welle, alleging that they have spread false information about Ukraine. Russian authorities have also dubbed their own media workers and independent outlets as “foreign agents,” a label that for some evokes Soviet-era terms such as “enemy of the people.”

On Friday afternoon, Roskomnadzor said it was blocking access to Facebook throughout Russia.

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