On Sunday, a tired-looking President Volodymyr Zelenskyy addressed four Russian journalists for an hour and a half.
Zelenskyy, whose Zoom name was listed as “President of Ukraine,” spoke of the horror unfolding in the besieged city of Mariupol in the east of Ukraine, the estimated casualties of the war and the reality of the invasion, including Russian bodies piling up in the country. The purpose of the interview, which was done in Russian, Zelenskyy’s first language, was to undercut Moscow’s propaganda machine and reach Russian people directly.
However, hours after the interview, amid a growing criminalisation of independent media, the Kremlin instructed Russian news media “of the necessity to refrain from publishing this interview.”
Tikhon Dzyadko, the editor in chief of Russia’s now-shuttered independent media channel, Dozhd TV, was one of the four journalists granted access to Zelenskyy.
“It was a very tough but very important conversation because Zelenskyy talked directly to the Russian audience,” Dzyadko told VICE World News. “I think it was really important and very interesting, but the reaction of the Russian authorities was overwhelming – it showed once more how they are afraid of the truth or at least of the second opinion."
This conversation with the Ukrainian president came weeks after Dozhd TV was forced to shut down amid a drastic media clampdown that has seen almost all independent media outlets closed. Many journalists have fled the country or faced fines or arrests for their work. Facebook and Instagram have been banned as “extremist” by the government.
“Our TV station was shut down as a result of military censorship in Russia,” Dzyadko says over a video call. “It's impossible for independent journalists to work in Russia because even the word ‘war’ is forbidden. If you do not obey these new restrictions, you could face up to 15 years in jail – that's why we decided that it is impossible to continue operating.”
Now, Russian journalists are having to find new ways to report. After it became clear Dozhd TV would shut down, Dzyadko and his partner Ekaterina Kotrikadze, also a journalist, decided to launch a YouTube channel called “Kotrikadze Dzyadko” to continue their reporting. Within five days, Dzyadko fled Moscow, and with Kotrikadze and some friends in Tbilisi, Georgia, set up a new broadcasting studio. Their first live stream reached 450,000 viewers and the channel has now picked up over 120,000 subscribers. In it, Dzyadko wears a blue blazer while Kotrikadze wears a yellow top – the colours of the Ukrainian flag.
“Now is the time when it's crucially important to work and to tell people the truth,” says Dzyadko, “because we see how many lies are being spread by Russian propaganda.”
Although Dzyadko had only been the editor-in-chief of Dozhd TV for two years, he had been involved in the project since its launch in 2010. While the channel survived many attempts to shut it down, legislation putting journalists at risk of prison was the final straw.
“It was humiliating because we were not criminals,” says Dzyadko. “We weren't doing anything bad. Over the 12 years of Dozhd, I am absolutely sure we were doing good things for our country and for our people.”
“We are real patriots, not the Russian government,” he says. “It is humiliating to be forced to stop working and to be forced to leave your country. We hope that the situation will change. But now we have to deal with what we have.”
Reporting from outside the country comes with its own challenges.
“It's difficult [to report] and I'm afraid that it will become harder and harder because the Russian government is trying to build this digital Iron Curtain,” he says. “But we have social media and some experts in Russia who are not afraid to talk. We have journalists there who are ready to speak to us on-air so it is difficult, but it is possible.”
While Russia continues its brutal attack on Ukraine and censorship of the war in its own country, many journalists are looking for a more permanent home outside of Russia.
For Dzyadko, the plan is not to stay in Tbilisi, but to find a European country where he and his wife can more permanently set up shop – and hopefully reunite with Dozhd TV friends and colleagues.
“Several dozens of our journalists left the country and we are in contact with them. We're discussing our further plans,” says Dzyadko. “We're discussing different options. I hope that in the near future, in a few months, when we realise what we're going to do, we will do it together with them.”