As Russian troops step up their invasion of Ukraine, the news looks very different depending on where you are.
On Russian-owned television channels, justification for the war has been broadcast everywhere, pushing the false claim that Russia’s invasion was in self-defence, or to stop the “Nazification” of Ukraine and free its people.
Except, on Dozhd TV, something exceptional was taking place: they were broadcasting what was really happening. As war intensifies, journalists are thanking Dozhd TV, sharing “gratitude” for its independent reporting. Meanwhile, thousands protested against Russian President Vladimir Putin’s invasion in 48 cities across the country, including Moscow and St. Petersburg, willing to be arrested for their right to demonstrate.
Dozhd TV, which means Rain TV, originally launched with a different agenda. The news channel was founded in Moscow by Natasha Sindeyeva as a platform for culture and general interest, not hard-hitting news. Using money from her ex-banker husband, Aleksandr Vinokurov, Sindeyeva spent 8 million rubles (equivalent to £5 million at the time) launching the channel in 2010. Its journey is the subject of a new independent documentary by F@CK THIS JOB. Dozhd TV would go on to be the only Russian channel reporting the news state media wouldn’t touch – it broadcast live to millions of viewers from the 2011 march against the rigged parliamentary election, the 2014 protests against the invasion of Crimea, and now, Putin’s invasion of Ukraine.
“I didn't have the idea to do a news station or some sort of political TV channel,” Sindeyeva tells VICE World News over a Zoom call from a restaurant in Moscow, where she was sipping tea. “I wanted to make a TV channel for normal, average people that would run news and culture – just a TV station for general interest.”
“At that time, there wasn't YouTube and there wasn't any video content for those who had lost their faith in television,” she says. “I just wanted to make a TV channel that didn’t have any forbidden topics.”
Reporting independently in Russia, where all other broadcast channels are state-funded, is risky. There has been an extreme crackdown on independent Russian news media, resulting in journalists – including those from Dozhd TV like Sindeyeva – named “foreign agents” by the Russian state. For Dozhd TV, working in a country that in 2017 passed a law requiring “foreign agent” journalists to publish qualifiers stating their work “performs the functions of a foreign agent” the prospect of arrest is always looming.
The channel was taken off terrestrial television in 2014 and advertisers cancelled deals with Dozhd as a result of state pressure, but it remained on YouTube. Sindeyeva suspected she was being followed, and Dozhd TV had its offices raided. Despite this, the channel remains active and independent today, running on subscriptions – in 2020, Dozhd TV made 132.8 million rubles from subscriptions. In the five days since the invasion of Ukraine started last week, it has gone from 2.5 million YouTube subscribers to 3.1 million.
“It's pretty hard to run this sort of media channel,” she says. “On the one hand, it's difficult because of the landscape and because of the whole political context – there are no other independent media channels in Russia at the moment.”
“On the other hand,” says Sindeyeva, “it's quite difficult from an economic perspective because Dozhd TV is a media channel that uses the subscription economic model, and people are poor and they're becoming poorer, so it's kind of not sufficient for them to pay money for the media.”
The world is watching Russia as it carries out a military invasion of Ukraine and threatens nuclear retaliation. Sindeyeva is explicit in her condemnation.
“I would like to say this not as the head of Dozhd TV but just as a human: We are very much afraid of war. We worry a lot. We didn't witness World War II, but all of us have grandfathers, grandmothers who told us stories about that war.”
“We are afraid and we feel fear,” she says. “And we cannot believe that [a military invasion] can happen in the 21st century, in the very heart of Europe. ”
If it weren’t for Dozhd TV, Russians would be receiving one message on the war in Ukraine on broadcast media. While Russian state media pushes the “liberation” of Ukraine, Dozhd TV was showing anti-war protests and Ukrainian residential buildings destroyed by Russian missiles.
“On our TV station, nobody can make us do something or not do something – that person doesn't exist,” says Sindeyeva. “We have our editor-in-chief and our journalists, so they define the editorial policy. We are sending a film crew right now to the regions not far from the border and we want to see everything with our own eyes.”
“In terms of the other media channels, of course, the state media only tells what they are allowed to and only says the official position of the Kremlin,” she says. “It's huge propaganda.”
Reporting independently on the invasion of Ukraine may rank as one of the most challenging moments in the channel’s history, but certainly not the only difficulty it’s faced.
“There have been many different difficult moments, but I guess the most challenging was 2014,” says Sindeyeva. “We were at the summit of our popularity, and we were an independent media channel that could be a basis for discussions, could be a place where people can meet and discuss things. Basically, we were almost in every village and then within three days they just started to switch us off from cable networks. It was a campaign to destroy our TV channel. That was the first time we faced the will and wish to erase us.”
Not fearing the wrath of Putin, Dozhd TV has also interviewed his highest-profile critic, lawyer and former opposition leader Alexei Navalny. Last week, Navalny – who is now imprisoned in Russia and facing 15 more years – used a court hearing to denounce the war in Ukraine as, “unleashed to cover up the robbery of Russian citizens and divert their attention away from the country’s internal problems.”
Navalny was arrested in Moscow for violating his bail conditions after returning from Germany, where he was recuperating after surviving an attack with deadly nerve agent Novichok. He has accused the Russian state of trying to assassinate him. The Kremlin has denied any involvement.
“Navalny is a hero,” says Sindeyeva. “He definitely understood that he had no chance to avoid jail or to stay free. He knew that. It's a demonstration of his views and his position. He decided to give up part of his life in this game – when he made the decision to come back to Russia. That was awesome and brought a lot of respect.”
“He's very brave, and his family are very brave,” she adds. “He is an example of more than a hero, and he will definitely become a part of modern Russian history, and I think maybe president too one day.”
Right now, the stability of Europe is threatened by a man who monopolises on fear, fake news and chaos. As thousands of Russian troops are reported to have been killed, Putin has warned that any retaliation by NATO allies will be met with "consequences" like "never seen in history”. What does the future hold for Putin?
“That is a funny question,” she laughs. “Only God knows, you know, actually, because there is only one point. Point number one is Putin. He can run for the presidency in the year 2024, or in the year 2030. Or he can just decide not to do it. It depends on him – everything is in the hands of God.”
F@CK THIS JOB (TANGO WITH PUTIN) is now in cinemas and airing on BBC4 Storyville on the 9th of March