What Independent Media Needs to Survive

Vasily Gatov, media analyst and senior fellow in USC Annenberg Center – CCLPtalks about five basic needs for maintaining independent media in Russian.

The situation in the Russian media and journalism has changed dramatically since the beginning of Russia’s war of aggression in Ukraine. Whereas before the war, information activity was limited, but remained possible inside the country, after February 24, the Russian regime consciously, actively, and severely restricted any formats of internal information that contradicted state norms.

Russia, in fact, introduced military censorship and criminal responsibility for “creating and disseminating false information about the activities of the Russian Armed Forces and bodies of the Russian Federation abroad”.

The consequence of these decisions was the mass closure of the last independent media as well as the mass emigration of editors and journalists associated with these organizations.

It is worth noting that some journalists continued their work as individual authors (primarily in the format of podcasts or streaming YouTube channels) almost immediately after they left the Russian Federation. Many professionals now reconsider their previous projects and brands restricted and blocked by RosKomNadzor in Russia.

Yet, there are several basic needs for maintaining independent media in Russian.

(1) Most likely, as during the Cold War, exile mediahave to be done from abroad, with limited access to national news and events as a result of numerous blockades, but, more importantly, with significantly less information from within Russia itself. It is clear that modern means of communication, including messengers with point-to-point encryption, will remain available to Russians for some time, and this will allow for Russian news and information of an unofficial nature. Maintaining such communication channels is a critical necessity and should be a top priority for the entire Russian political agenda community, including the media.

(2) All democratic development and human rights organizations with a focus on Russia and Eurasia must support VPN (virtual private network) systems and companies that provide many readers, viewers, listeners and social networkers with access to alternative information. Among the necessary measures is direct or indirect financing of the most secure VPN services, for which it may be necessary to analyze the existing supply on the market and evaluate the most promising services. Also, perhaps, due to the blocking of Visa and MasterCard for Russian users, it makes sense to agree with the most reliable VPN-service providers on a free service for Russian users (with the financial support of Western governments and NGOs interested in preserving access to at least part of the Russian audience).

(3) It becomes crucial to create, fund and develop journalist and activist “co-working spaces” in cities with significant numbers of Russian (and Ukrainian) emigrants. Of course, in today’s media world, it is not so important to have a newsroom with its atmosphere and spirit. However, for people who find themselves in a difficult situation, the opportunity to communicate, to discuss creative and everyday issues together is urgently needed. In addition, shared creative and working spaces support future creative projects and can act as incubators for media startups and collaborations.

(4) Negative attitudes toward the war in Ukraine have, for the first time in decades, reduced tensions between Russian journalists with different political views and between representatives of different professional generations. Many of those who created the new post-Soviet media have unique experiences and competencies that will certainly prove useful in the actual reconstruction of the media environment in emigration. These veterans of journalism and the media business have also been living in the West for a long time and are quite available for cooperation.

(5) Training Russian journalists and activists, both in exile and in Russia, in digital security continues to be highly relevant. Given the evolving technology on the part of both intelligence services and users, trainings on these issues should be continually updated.

In the tense and volatile atmosphere of war, it is difficult to make detailed predictions and assumptions about how the situation will develop. The general tendency of the Putin regime is that any media communication free of censorship and self-censorship must be eliminated in order to provide fully controlled propaganda with uncontested field of play.

Due to the technological peculiarities of the Russian Internet, its total shutdown (as well as 100% censorship) is hardly realistic. At least 20 percent of the Russian media audience does not trust the Kremlin or the controlled media and habitually seeks information from independent and external sources. However, even the fully unified efforts of these “twenty percent” are unable to change the policy of the Kremlin, which has long been seriously preparing to suppress civil resistance, primarily in the capitals.

As mentioned above, the military situation is very fluid, and despite the censorship blockade, reports about what is happening in Ukraine reach even mass Russian audiences. Along with the physical effect of the war (funeral letters, coffins, and disabled people returning home), the pervasive information reinforces three in some sense opposite forms of demand for information:

(1) reliable, factual information about what is happening in Ukraine, including information about casualties among Russian soldiers, Ukrainian civilians, and details of the military campaign;

(2) isolating information outside of the information agenda, distracting thoughts about the war and allowing one to concentrate on something else (from professional to hobby);

(3) information that confirms the “data” of the propaganda information bubble, allowing one to cope with the problems of cognitive dissonance by strengthening it.

At the same time, the non-reflexive majority of Russian audiences are likely to lean toward the second type of information provision, and will need non-political, non-informational, “extraneous” content – including the kind that current Russian TV and other media have almost stopped to produce in the days of crisis.

Accordingly, when planning support for various media penetration initiatives in the Russian information space, a balance must be maintained between purely news, analytical, and non-information media initiatives. In a situation of sharp disagreements on the agenda, trust is gained not only and not so much through “hard news” (including contradictory bias) but also through cultural, entertainment, and educational media.

It is necessary to understand that Russian mass audiences are not only zombified by propaganda but are also traumatized by it. Therefore, a harsh critical approach and the “introduction of the truth” (especially about the war and its nightmarish consequences) aggravate the trauma, rather than contribute to a cure.