‘They can’t lock us all away.’ Russian TV journalists start to crack following Marina Ovsyannikova’s brave broadcast protest

March 15, 2022, 3:47 PM UTC
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.
A woman watches a dissenting Russian Channel One employee entering Ostankino TV studio during Russia’s most-watched evening news broadcast, holding up a poster that reads “No War” and condemning Moscow’s military action in Ukraine on March 15, 2022.
AFP/Getty Images

Russia’s broadcast media has long been under the Kremlin’s thumb, and even more so since Vladimir Putin’s regime invaded Ukraine and clamped down further on free expression.

But cracks are emerging in Russian TV’s propagandistic facade.

On Monday, a Channel One Russia editor named Marina Ovsyannikova invaded the station’s set during a news broadcast, displaying an anti-war sign behind the presenter and shouting, “No to war! Stop the war!” The live feed was cut, and Ovsyannikova was arrested.

Then on Tuesday, it emerged that the veteran TV news anchor Lilia Gildeeva had quit her job at Gazprom-controlled NTV—after fleeing Russia.

The journalist Ilya Varlamov said on Telegram that Gildeeva told him she had been afraid the authorities would not otherwise let her go. NTV subsequently confirmed to news agency RIA Novosti that Gildeeva no longer worked for the channel. She had worked there since 2006.

Little is known about Gildeeva’s motivation right now, but the same can’t be said for Ovsyannikova, who prerecorded a video before her on-air stunt and, according to the Guardian, told a friend of her plans days before executing what the Kremlin on Tuesday derided as “hooliganism.”

“Unfortunately, I’ve spent many of the last few years working for Channel One, doing Kremlin propaganda, and I’m deeply ashamed of this,” Ovsyannikova said (per Meduza’s translation) in the video. “Ashamed that I allowed lies to come from the TV screen. Ashamed that I allowed the zombification of Russian people.”

Ovsyannikova said her father is Ukrainian and her mother Russian, and they have “never been enemies.”

“The next 10 generations won’t wash away the stain of this fratricidal war,” she said. “We Russians are thinking and intelligent people. It’s in our power alone to stop all this madness. Go protest. Don’t be afraid of anything. They can’t lock us all away.”

More than 14,000 protesters have been arrested since the Feb. 24 invasion and nearly 200 remanded in custody, according to human rights monitor OVD-Info.

As for Ovsyannikova herself, the TV producer appeared in court on Tuesday afternoon on charges of organizing a protest—an administrative offense that carries a maximum jail term of 10 days, or a fine. OVD-Info reported that her video had also been blocked on the VKontakte social network.

Earlier in the day, when Ovsyannikova’s whereabouts were unknown even to her lawyers, the state newswire TASS reported that she could be prosecuted under a law forbidding the “public dissemination of knowingly false information about the use of the Armed Forces of the Russian Federation.”

That could have put her behind bars for a decade or more.

The law (Article 207.3 of Russia’s criminal code) was passed earlier this month, essentially criminalizing independent war reporting—and indeed reporting that there is a war or an invasion at all; the official line is still that Russian forces are involved in a “special military operation” in Ukraine. Its passage forced several independent Russian media outlets to stop operating and is hampering Western outlets’ reporting from within the country.

Indeed, even when the independent-minded Novaya Gazeta reported on Ovsyannikova’s actions on Tuesday, complete with photo, it had to blur out most of the phrases on her sign, such as “Stop the war” and “Russians against war.” The publication left one phrase visible: “Don’t believe the propaganda.”

Ovsyannikova’s TV appearance drew praise from Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy, who said he was “personally” grateful. Meanwhile, the United Nations said she should “not face any reprisals for exercising her right to freedom of expression.”

Apart from some TV pundits and officials surprising hosts with on-air anti-war sentiments, there has until now been little pushback against the invasion from broadcast journalists themselves.

Before this week, the most notable media revolt was the mass resignation of staffers from the foreign-language services of RT, the state propaganda outlet formerly known as Russia Today, at the time of the invasion.

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