Kirill Artemenko, director of “Bumaga” media outlet (Russia)

12 March 2022 was the first Saturday since the war began that I decided to get enough sleep. I didn’t manage it, however: the website of “Bumaga”, the media outlet that my friends and I founded ten years ago, was blocked by the Russian authorities on early Saturday morning, and as early as 6 a.m. we started getting messages from readers who had discovered that the site would not open without a VPN. We were surprised that we hadn’t been blocked earlier: from the early days of the war, we had been writing about the impact of Russia’s war with Ukraine on St. Petersburg, explicitly stating that war is war, and that Russia had invaded Ukraine. At the same time, some of our readers were surprised that even such a politically quiet publication as ours, known to many for its information about St. Petersburg city life, was subject to censorship.

As a prominent but nevertheless regional media, “Bumaga” was apparently not the first in line to be blocked — we ended up in the Roskomnadzor register 10 days after the blocking of major federal and foreign media outlets: “Meduza”, Deutsche Welle, BBC. However, we were lucky to receive a justification for our blocking in the form of a precise state formulation worthy of George Orwell’s texts (forgive me this banal comparison). Appreciate its elegance: “Posting of knowingly false information of public importance. In particular, informational materials about Russia’s alleged attack on the territory of Ukraine. But according to official sources of the Russian Federation, including the Russian Ministry of Defense, the above information does not correspond to reality, incites panic, creates preconditions for mass violations of public order and public safety”. The spelling, punctuation and stylistics are original, those of Roskomnadzor officials.

Since late February, Russia has introduced de facto military censorship: any war-related information that does not come from the Russian Defense Ministry or other official agencies can be deemed deliberately false and met with the following reaction: blocking a website or personal social media page or administrative or criminal proceedings, depending on your luck.

Many media outlets, journalists, and bloggers, frightened by the maximum prison sentence under the new law on “fake news” about Russian government agencies — up to 15 years in prison — decided to stop covering the “special military operation,” as Vladimir Putin called the war with Ukraine, and even deleted all publications made before the law came into force. Many media companies simply ceased operations, in particular the major Ural-based news website Znak.com. Some of the editorial offices continued operating, changing some of their wording to what the Russian authorities demanded.

Some chose a third way: the most vivid example being “Novaya Gazeta”, whose correspondent Elena Kostyuchenko in recent weeks risked her life working in the heart of the hostilities and was the first, if not the only, Russian journalist to report on the tragedy in Mykolaiv. “Novaya”, as voted for by the newspaper’s donors and readers – “accomplices” – chose a strategy of holding out until the end, balancing the demands of military censorship and the publication of the gruesome truth that the publication’s journalists have been used to telling since the early nineties. Thus, in Kostyuchenko’s report, which appeared in the paper version of the newspaper and on the website, individual depictions of heroes and whole paragraphs that the state censors could have interpreted as violations of the law on “fake news” have been removed. Full versions of Kostyuchenko’s reports were published by foreign publications and Russian ones, in particular “Mediazona”, which boycotts military censorship and has already been blocked.

The colleagues managed to evade censorship for 34 days. On 28 March, “Novaya Gazeta” received a second warning from Roskomnadzor for violating the rules of labeling “foreign agent” NGOs (a set of foreign agent laws is also part of government pressure on independent media) and the editor-in-chief, Nobel Peace Prize laureate Dmitry Muratov, announced that the newspaper would stop operating until the “special operation” was over. He promised to sell his Nobel Medal at an auction soon to benefit Ukrainian refugees and sick Ukrainian children.

The day before, on 27 March, Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky gave his first “wartime” interview to four Russian journalists: the editors-in-chief of the blocked “Meduza” and the “Dozhd” TV channel, Ivan Kolpakov and Tikhon Dzyadko; “Kommersant” journalist Vladimir Solovyov (not to be confused with the propagandist!); and writer Mikhail Zygar, former editor-in-chief of “Dozhd”. Moments before the interview was simultaneously published in several media outlets and on YouTube, Roskomnadzor shifted from punitive censorship to prior censorship by banning explicitly an interview with the legitimate president of a neighboring country. The demand was published on Roskomnadzor’s Telegram channel and seemed hysterical: it contained a host of typos and mistakes, which were corrected much later, after the demand was re-posted many times.

Censorship in Russia is prohibited by the Constitution — even the latest version from 2020, rewritten for Vladimir Putin’s upcoming fifth re-election. “Meduza” and “Dozhd” ignored Roskomnadzor’s demands and published the conversation. Zelensky’s interview was never published by “Kommersant”, which remains in the official Russian field.

It seems, however, that despite the total destruction of literally every independent media outlet in Russia, the authorities continue to engage in controversy with us. When the investigative media outlet “Agentstvo”, founded by the journalist Roman Badanin, long-recognised as a foreign agent, discovered that Defense Minister Sergei Shoigu had not been seen in public for over ten days, and posted this observation on its Telegram channel (with 47,000 subscribers), the main federal TV channel “Rossiya” soon interrupted its regular broadcast to show the public a ten-second segment of Putin’s meeting with Shoigu. The viewers of the channel might not ever have suspected that anything might be wrong with the Defense Minister, but then they were suddenly informed that Putin’s comrade-in-arms was alive and legitimate. It shows yet again that despite the all-out war declared on independent media in Russia, the authoritarian regime may subconsciously need them.

This makes sense in its own way: the media is a tool for free conversation between people. If you have all the media under your stranglehold, then you are talking to yourself all the time, and you are gradually becoming a patient in a psychiatric hospital. It’s hard to make informed, coherent decisions in such a status.