RFE/RL – Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty (Author)
Funerals are being held for soldiers. Shopping malls have more and more vacant storefronts. Prices are rising, and goods are disappearing from store shelves.
These are some of the stories that Russia's non-state regional media outlets have reported on in recent weeks. But what they can't tell their audiences is the story behind all of these stories: the story of what the Kremlin euphemistically calls its "special military operation," the war in Ukraine.
"Pskovskaya Guberniya tried to continue working under wartime conditions," said the former editor in chief of the last independent media outlet in the northwestern Russian city of Pskov, Denis Kamalyagin. But on March 5, one day after Russia adopted draconian new laws on the "dissemination of information that discredits the armed forces of the Russian Federation," OMON riot police showed up in force at the online newspaper's offices.
"OMON put all these 'dangerous criminals' face down on the floor and ransacked the office over a supposed administrative offense," Kamalyagin said. "Continuing to work after they confiscated all our equipment, after their threats, after they blocked our website and our social media channels was impossible…. There is no room for independent journalism in Russia."
Kamalyagin and most of the newspaper's long-embattled staff have since left Russia. He hopes to reassemble Pskovskaya Guberniya and renew publication from outside the country in the near future.
"It is hard getting information when you are abroad, but we still have not only our own sources but also our local stringers," Kamalyagin told RFE/RL's North.Realities.
Although the closure or blocking of major national media like online channel Dozhd, Ekho Moskvy radio, and RFE/RL's Russian-language programming has received considerable international attention, the plight of non-state local and regional media has been less well documented. But at that level, as well, the Kremlin is conducting a scorched-earth campaign that is uprooting the last of the country's embattled independent media.
The state media monitor Roskomnadzor has forbidden Russian media from using the words "war" or "invasion" in connection with the attack on Ukraine and has warned them only to publish information from Russian government sources.
On March 22, the State Duma passed an additional bill that would criminalize the dissemination of "false information” about the activity of Russian state agencies abroad, including that of the prosecutor's office, the National Guard, the Emergency Situations Ministry, the Foreign Ministry, and others. Like the criminal law against discrediting the armed forces, the new bill -- which a Kremlin spokesman said on March 23 that President Vladimir Putin would sign “quickly" -- stipulates punishments of up to 15 years in prison.
WATCH: TV2 in Tomsk, Siberia, was among the last free and independent regional media outlets in Russia. But the company's unfettered journalism was not in sync with the country's restrictive political climate. The station's broadcasts were shut down at the end of 2014. (Originally published in 2019)
In the Siberian city of Tomsk, the once highly respected TV2 regional television station, which was forced off the air in 2015, has closed after its Internet programming was blocked.
The popular Taiga-Info portal in Novosibirsk has been blocked, although it continues to function.
In Yakutsk, capital of the Sakha Republic, the portal Ykt.ru, which has operated since 1999, shut down on March 9, just days after the new censorship law was passed.
"It has become clear in recent days that this portal cannot last long as an independent space," founder Arsen Tomsky wrote in a farewell editorial. "In order to preserve the reputation of this portal and its team, our illustrious history, we have decided to end the work of Ykt.ru."
Vadim Vostrov is the director of TVK television in Krasnoyarsk, which continues to broadcast, although it is besieged by attacks on anonymous Telegram channels.
His staff "has done all we could under the circumstances," he said, explaining that it is possible to report about slain local servicemen and the social and economic effects of the war -- even as the new legislation and pressure from the state make it impossible to report accurately on the war itself.
"We give space to psychologists to talk about how to cope with all that is happening," Vlasov said. "In short, we do whatever we can for those who still have their common sense."
Yaroslav Vlasov, a journalist with Taiga-Info, said that when the war in Ukraine was launched, the website tried to cover the war independently, without repeating the Kremlin's unfounded claims.
"From February 24, we tried to cover the 'special operation' in detail from both sides," he said, adding that his website was perhaps the first media outlet in the country to give specific information about local soldiers killed in the conflict.
"I think that is why they quickly blocked us," Vlasov added. "Although the formal pretext was the same as it is for everyone: that we insisted on calling things by their real names."
"After the passage of Putin's law on military censorship on March 4, we -- like most remaining media in Russia -- were forced to delete all of our reporting about the 'special operation,'" he said. "As a result, we decided to stop covering it at all so that we wouldn't have to disseminate just the one-sided information of the Defense Ministry. We focused on articles about the economic crisis, protest actions, and other consequences of the president's decision.
"It would be honest to say that we are now afraid of everything because they can come for us for any reason," Vlasov said.
The same worries haunt Yelena Ivanova, editor in chief of the independent news agency Svobodnye novosti in the central Russian city of Saratov.
"We are consulting with legal specialists and lawyers and no one can tell us when, where, and how we might step on a mine," she said. "For the media, everywhere has become a minefield."
"We don't know how to work," she said. "And every morning we wake up to this same nightmare."
Nonetheless, she added, none of her staff plans to leave Russia.
"We live and work in Saratov," she said. "We are simply trying to practice journalism in this situation as best we can and to remain -- no matter how pathetic this might sound -- honest people."
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