‘Delete the Video or We’ll Block YouTube’: Inside Putin’s War on the Free Press

Dawn raids, Kafkaesque house arrests, ensuring articles are labelled with the words ‘FOREIGN AGENT’ in giant font – Russia is pulling out all the stops to clamp down on anything resembling independent media.

15 June 2021, 1:30pm

The early morning WhatsApp message sent a chill down Arina Gundyreva’s spine.

“The office is being raided,” her editorial colleague Armen Aramyan wrote in their work WhatsApp group. “I am terrified.”

Gundyreva rushed to the office. A scene of absolute chaos greeted her when she arrived.

“The authorities searched our entire office, including a bulk of nuts we ordered for ourselves,” she said.

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"I felt so stressed, and hollow. They took away our office, our safe space.”

Gundyreva and Aramyan are editors at DOXA, an online student magazine that began at Moscow’s Higher School of Economics but is now fully independent. Russian authorities also raided the homes of several of their colleagues, one of whom lived with his parents.

Later that day, a court in Moscow issued a two-month restraining order against Aramyan, Natalia Tyshkevich, Vladimir Metelkin, and Alla Gutnikova, and ordered them to be placed under house arrest, alleging they were “engaging minors in actions that might be dangerous.” The strict house arrest was applied using a legal loophole that technically allowed the four arrested editors to leave the house for a minute per day – between 11.59PM and midnight.

“I am pretty sure they did this to show us that they are above the law and can do as they please with us," Victor Ershov, another DOXA editor, told VICE World News. Under the terms of the order, the four editors were banned from communicating with the outside world, including using the internet.

The Russian state’s actions against DOXA are not unique. VICE World News has spoken to editors from two other independent Russian news outlets who said their ability to operate within Vladimir Putin’s Russia is becoming increasingly difficult, to the point of being practically impossible. In the last several weeks, VTimes, one of Russia’s last independent news outlets, announced it was closing due to political pressure, while bailiffs turned up at the Moscow office of Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty.

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The crackdown comes after opposition figurehead Alexei Navalny was jailed after returning to Russia, sparking widespread protests, and ahead of US President Joe Biden’s summit with Putin in Geneva, Switzerland. 

A protester holds a placard during an internet freedom demonstration in Moscow in 2019. Photo: ALEXANDER NEMENOV/AFP via Getty Images

DOXA’s issues with authorities began in January when Navalny flew back to Moscow, having spent months recovering in Germany following a suspected assassination attempt in Russia – Navalny accuses Putin of ordering the hit.

Back then, DOXA released a video expressing backing for Navalny supporters’ right to protest when they took to the streets in big numbers.

“We posted this video on YouTube after more than 50 universities across Russia threatened to expel students who participated in protests to free Navalny,” staff editor Nikita Kuchinsky told VICE World News over a Zoom call. 

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The video featured editors at DOXA saying that such threats towards students were “inappropriate” and “out of place.”

Three days after its release, DOXA received an official letter from the Federal Service for Supervision of Communications, Information, Technology and Mass Media ordering the video to be deleted within 24 hours. The letter, seen by VICE World News, came with an extraordinary and improbable threat: unless DOXA removed the video, the communications ministry said it would limit YouTube access throughout the whole of Russia.

"We took the video down within 18 hours, and continued our work as normal for the next two months,” Gundyreva said. After the authorities swarmed over DOXA in April, staff responded by launching a campaign on Twitter, Instagram and Facebook called “1-Minute,” based around the idea that the arrested editors only had one minute of freedom per day. "We aimed to draw attention to the absurd abuse of the law and casuistry on the part of the investigation," said Ershov, who came up with the idea for the campaign. 

"We encouraged our readers to tell what they would and would not have time to do in a minute," he said. "This caused a great public outcry, and the authorities, to reduce the level of public discontent, allowed [the arrested editors] to leave their houses from 8AM to 10AM." 

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During this time, DOXA editors under house arrest got help from a psychologist who provided weekly check-ups. "All this is very depressing, and it has detrimental effects on everybody's mental health," said Gundyreva.

Because of DOXA's editorial structure, the team has been able to continue working from home without the four editors' input. "We don't have a meeting space where we can discuss and plan. In addition to our primary journalistic work, we are also campaigning for the release of our colleagues," said Ershov, who has recently been working 14-18 hour days.

“We are all afraid because we don't know who is next in line. The father of one of the editors under house arrest moved his valuables in case the police turn up," said Ershov. 

In solidarity with DOXA, more than 250 academics from around the world have signed a solidarity statement urging all charges to be dropped and demanding the end to Russia’s harassment of students and journalists.

But last week, the court in Moscow extended the editors' house arrest until September, less than a week before the elections to the Duma, Russia’s Parliament. Ershov believes this was done to prevent DOXA from giving voice to the opposition. 

Russian riot police block a street during a rally in support of Alexei Navalny, in St. Petersburg in April 2021. Photo: OLGA MALTSEVA/AFP via Getty Images

The harassment of DOXA has taken place against a backdrop of persecution of independent media in Russia, where the government controls the three major news channels, most media is in the hands of Putin allies, and self-censorship is rife.

On the World Press Freedom Index 2021 compiled by Reporters without Borders, Russia ranks 150th out of 180 countries. Harassment of independent media has risen to a “new level” since Navalny’s return, Reporters Without Borders said.

In April, the Russian Justice Ministry labelled Riga-based Meduza – one of the most prominent independent media outlets reporting on Russian affairs – as a “Foreign Agent,” a term that can be applied to any political organisation or person receiving aid from abroad. 

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"Our media outlet and business model was destroyed within less than a week as we lost the vast majority of our advertisers, who now think we are puppets of one of Russia’s enemies," Ivan Kolpakov, Meduza's editor in chief, said in a Zoom interview.

Before Meduza, Kolpakov worked for Lenta.ru, but was fired in 2014 when 39 out of 84 employees lost their jobs.

"It came out of the blue, only days before the annexation of Crimea, Kremlin advocate Alexey Goreslavsky replaced Yuliya Minder as editor-in-chief of Lenta. The outlet turned into a pro-Kremlin propaganda tool, which is why we started fresh with Meduza," Kolpakov said.

But now, despite averaging 13 million unique visitors monthly, Meduza’s future looks grim, according to Kolpakov.

In practice, every article published by Meduza needs to be labelled with a notice stating the news outlet is a "Foreign Agent" in letters twice the size of the article’s content. 

"This has destructive consequences as we lost trust from both advertisers and our readers, many of whom think that we are now working for a foreign enemy state like the USA or Czech Republic."

In addition to lost trust, Meduza staff need to grapple with filing detailed reports to the Russian Ministry of Justice. "We are under constant supervision and scrutiny; any little mistake can translate into fines and more restrictions," said Kolpakov.

He said that independent press in Russia face the same issue as Western media outlets, like volatile ad models and fighting for readers’ attention with social media. "On top of that, there is debilitating pressure from state authorities, hackers, and ever-present trolls. In addition, we fear for our safety."

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Kolpakov believes these struggles are due to "Putin not liking independent journalists," attributing their work to a larger scheme controlled by a foreign "master of puppets."

"Because he controls Russian media, he believes that Russia's enemies govern all independent press. For him, the media is a PR tool of state control; those that criticise the Kremlin must be somebody's puppets, so he fights back," he said.

A pedestrian stands near security arrangements close to the site of the Biden-Putin meeting in Geneva, Switzerland. Photo: Stefan Wermuth/Bloomberg via Getty Images

Roman Anin is an independent journalist and founder of the Russian investigative news site iStories, who has been under state surveillance since 2016.

In April this year, Anin was stopped on his way to a swimming pool. "A man approached me from behind, showing me his federal security licence. What followed was a seven-hour search of my apartment," Anin told VICE World News over Zoom.

"They seized all my equipment like a laptop, phones, flashcards, everything." After rummaging through his personal belongings and several hours of questioning, Anin was finally released.

As he later found out, that would not be the end of the story. Within weeks he was forcibly designated as a witness in a high profile court case, but he fears this is a manipulation tactic to intimidate him and put him in prison. 

The court case in question dates back to 2016 when Russian oligarch and Rosneft CEO Igor Sechin, a close ally of Putin, sued Novaya Gazeta, a newspaper for which Anin published an article titled "The Secret of Princess Olga." 

Anin revealed pictures of Sechin's wife on a superyacht estimated to cost $100 million (£73 million). Sechin sued the news outlet and won, claiming Novaya Gazeta had "harmed" his reputation. Now, the article has a “Refutation” note at the beginning explaining the case.

However, this incident did not entirely disappear. In April this year, the case suddenly opened again, and Anin fears he may be cast as the main suspect, the consequences of which could lead to his imprisonment for up to four years.

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Despite this, he is determined to continue his journalistic work: "Our mission is, to tell the truth. We will continue to do this until we physically cannot.”

Anin attributes the growing pressure on independent journalists to the upcoming elections. "People are increasingly asking questions they cannot find answers to in state media, so they turn to independent media; which is a direct threat to Putin’s regime."

VICE World News repeatedly contacted Russian authorities for comment, but received no response at the time of publication.

Human Rights Watch researcher and specialist on Russian affairs Tanya Lokshina said that Russia’s independent press is under increasing attack, making reporting “insanely difficult to impossible.”

Her fear is that whatever opposition exists will eventually be stifled by the authorities who use both financial and legal mechanisms to silence and intimidate independent journalists from operating in Russia. 

“The recent Moscow court decision to flag organisations founded by Russia’s opposition leader Alexei Navalny as ‘extremist’ is a perfect example of that,” she said, before acknowledging her own struggles: “How can I continue to report on Russia when I can't even access public protests? I feel strangled and my ability to work under this regime is increasingly limited.”

CORRECTION 16/06/2021: This story originally stated DOXA was based at Moscow’s Higher School of Economics, but it in fact is now fully independent. We regret the error.

UPDATE 16/06/2021: This article has been updated to clarify how DOXA characterised its YouTube video that criticised universities threatening to expel students who attended pro-Navalny protests.

Tagged:

Vladimir Putin, Press Freedom, Alexei Navalny, worldnews

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