How to dodge media censorship in Russia: Leave and use Telegram

More than 100 people gathered outside of the Dorogomilovsky district court in Moscow on the foggy morning of April 12. Inside the court, four DOXA magazine journalists were about to hear their sentence in a year-long criminal case. They were accused of encouraging minors to protest in a YouTube video they published in the midst of pro-Navalny rallies in January 2021. As hours passed, the crowd and the police presence grew. A woman with balloons in Ukrainian flag colours and six more people were arrested by the police. Tension rose. Finally, at 5:00pm the judge announced the sentence – two years of “correctional labour”.

In different circumstances and in a different country, such an outcome might have depressed the defendants. But the journalists were relieved. The measure obligates the four – Alla Gutnikova, Armen Aramyan, Natalia Tyshkevich, and Vladimir Metelkin – to work in Russia and give five to 20 percent of their earnings to the government.

It could have been worse – a two-year jail term. The four had already spent a year under house arrest, and this latest sentence meant freedom: their tracking anklets would be removed immediately, they would be able to leave their houses at any time and use the internet again.

The crowd cheered as three of the four journalists left the court. Tyshkevich was taken to jail where she was serving a 15-day sentence in another case, for a 2017 Instagram post with a Ukrainian coat of arms.

“Freedom to Tyshkevich!” her supporters shouted.

‘New level of danger’

Today, more than two months into Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, almost all of DOXA’s 20 journalists have either left Russia or stopped reporting. So have more than 150 Moscow-based reporters and editors of Meduza, BBC Russian, Dozhd television, Ekho Moskvy radio station, Novaya Gazeta, the Moscow Times and other independent media.

DOXA’s editors felt they had no other choice. “Otherwise, we couldn’t guarantee their safety,” said one DOXA editor who uses the pseudonym Richard Kropotkin. “This was a test for our editorial team, because some people, the majority, felt that this was а new level of danger.”

In early March the Russian government introduced a law punishing “fakes about the Russian army” with up to 15 years in prison. “Fakes” included citing Ukrainian sources and using the word “war” instead of the government-approved “special operation”.

“We had a long discussion with the editorial team, and we concluded that we can’t self-censor,” said a DOXA editor, Katya Moroko, over a video call from Germany. “Any small step towards compromising with this government meant that they would ‘tighten the screws’ even more, and this compromise wouldn’t save us.”

After four days of almost non-stop coverage of the war, the DOXA website was blocked by the Russian government regulator Roskomnadzor, after a post about how to talk with friends and relatives who support the Russian invasion went viral on social media. In the following days, two dozen other independent Russian media were blocked or taken off air. “Those [first] days were really terrible,” said Masha Menshikova, DOXA’s news editor who is currently based in Germany. “I just sat at the computer from morning to night … Everything has changed for us because we have never written about the war in such detail. We wrote about universities.”

DOXA editors before the court in April
Four DOXA editors Armen Aramyan, Natalia Tyshkevich, Alla Gutnikova and Vladimir Metelkin with their supporters in front of Dorogomirovsky district court in Moscow ahead of their April 12 hearing [Courtesy of DOXA]

Popularity among students

DOXA started as a student magazine at the Higher School of Economics (HSE), one of Moscow’s most prestigious and most liberal universities. It quickly became one of Russia’s biggest media outlets covering education. In the summer of 2019, high school and university students in Moscow took to the streets when several opposition candidates were not allowed to run in the city council election. DOXA actively covered the rallies and asked inconvenient questions about the election campaign of HSE vice-rector Valeria Kassamara. In opinion pieces and social media posts, the magazine supported students who were arrested. As a result, the HSE discontinued the magazine’s registration as a student organisation, stating that the university is “beyond politics”. This, however, only contributed to DOXA’s popularity.

When high school and university students were arrested en masse at protest rallies in early 2021, DOXA came out in support of their peers again. This time, besides the regular coverage, four editors published a video where they emphasised their constitutional right to protest and condemned universities for intimidating and expelling students for going to rallies.

On April 14, 2021, police raided the apartments of Gutnikova, Aramyan, Tyshkevich, and Metelkin as well as their families’ homes. The journalists were placed under de-facto house arrest, accused of “engaging minors in actions that might be dangerous”.

The journalists were only allowed to leave their residences for one minute from 23:59 to 00:00. The four later appealed and were given two hours to spend outside their homes – from 8 to 10am.

The case lacked substance. The prosecution claimed that minors who watched the video could have participated in a mass demonstration, contracted the coronavirus and died, even though none of the prosecution witnesses admitted to watching the video and few knew about DOXA. Independent linguistics and psychology experts found no calls in the video to join the protests. However, the number of not guilty verdicts in Russia is less than half a percent, and politically motivated cases are even more likely to end up with suspects found guilty. The defendants had little hope they would be acquitted.

“The state is trying to intimidate activists and journalists as much as possible. That is why we… expected either a real or conditional [jail] term,” said Armen Aramyan, who is one of DOXA’s founders. “So indeed, the news about correctional labour became a relief.” The year the four spent under de-facto house arrest was not counted towards the completion of the sentence, and the journalists are going to appeal it.

Media reinvented in exile or at home

DOXA continues to write about Russian universities’ reactions to the latest crackdowns on free speech. Students from all over Russia reach out to the magazine to share what is happening at their schools. Some secretly record propaganda lectures, others share intimidating emails and messages from professors and administrators, as well as threats directed at students with anti-war views.

“The [universities’] last resort is expulsion,” Menshikova said. “Unfortunately, we already have such cases. If we compare it with last year, when pro-Navalny rallies took place, people were also expelled. I remember five expulsions. Now there are already more than five.”

According to Menshikova, due process is missing in these cases and students often get thrown out even before the court determines whether they have actually broken the law. “We are preparing a big project … with a rating of universities according to the degree of pressure [they exercise] on students,” she added.

When the DOXA website was blocked on February 28, its journalists took to social media and quickly created an anti-war listserv to email their readers who could no longer read the articles online. The listserv, which garnered 14,000 subscribers just two weeks after its launch, had two goals: to avoid shutdowns and to have a dialogue with its audience. “We not only cover the most important daily news in every email but also talk about the initiatives that people can join,” according to Kropotkin, one of the listserv creators.

After the start of the war, many other independent Russian media outlets had to reinvent themselves, either in exile or in another form at home.

Novaya Gazeta, the oldest and best-known independent Russian newspaper, halted its printed and online publication in late March, unable to cover the war according to its standards. Its exiled journalists launched Novaya Gazeta Europe in Riga, Latvia to continue the newspaper’s legacy. After the Ekho Moskvy radio station was taken off air, its editorial team started a YouTube channel, which has gathered half a million subscribers within a month.

Holod magazine specialised in long reads and complex feature stories about true crime and other events from Russian regions but had to quickly switch to the mode of “daily socio-political news”, according to Holod features editor Aleksandr Gorbachev. “It was clear that now we needed to write only about [the war] because it’s the only thing that worries us and our audience,” he said.

Holod managed to stay unhindered much longer than other independent media such as DOXA, the Latvia-based news website Meduza, and Mediazona, an online magazine that focuses on the judicial and law enforcement system. “We joked every day that we have some kind of protection in the FSB (Russian Security Service) or something,” Gorbachev said. “But it probably means that we are just not on the radar.”

When Al Jazeera spoke to Gorbachev, Holod had already received two warnings from Roskomnadzor and was blocked the day after the conversation took place. All Holod reporters and editors left Russia during the first weeks of the war, fearing persecution. “I think it makes a lot more sense to continue working [remotely] via cellphones and do something than just sit in Russia with a high prospect of being arrested and imprisoned,” Gorbachev observed.

Telegram as a distribution channel

Instagram, Twitter and the messaging app Telegram have always served as important distribution channels for Russian independent media. Since the start of the war, they became crucial. While Russians continue to use Instagram and Facebook through VPNs despite Meta blocking, Telegram has become many people’s first option to get uncensored news. Between February 24 and March 20, the app was downloaded almost a million times in Ukraine and more than 2.5 million times in Russia. Telegram’s interface allows publishing much longer texts than Twitter and Instagram, which makes it convenient to read the news without clicking on any external links.

Uncensored information means that, unlike Meta, Telegram almost never flags or filters posts and channels. Russian state propaganda, fake news and conspiracy theories flourish on the platform as well, next to the independent media reports. Russia’s biggest state news agency, Ria Novosti, has almost 2 million Telegram subscribers, while Meduza, arguably the most important alternative media, has only 1.2 million. Its followers doubled after the Meduza website was blocked in Russia on March 3.

The war prompted the creation of Telegram channels like ‘Mariupol Now’ that publish up-to-date information about the situation in Ukrainian cities. Such information outlets have become especially important for people trapped in cities like Mariupol without access to basic things like potable water, let alone news media. On the other side of the media divide, the Kremlin’s mouthpiece and state TV host Vladimir Soloviev is also on Telegram, where he shares his thoughts about Russia’s “denazification of Ukraine” with 1.2 million subscribers.

While Telegram is often perceived as a source of alternative information as opposed to the mainstream media, a big portion of the app content is unverified and simply false. On February 27, Telegram’s founder Pavel Durov asked users from Russia and Ukraine to treat the information on the app with a degree of scepticism.

“Telegram channels are increasingly becoming a source of unverified information related to Ukrainian events,” he wrote on his personal Telegram channel. “We do not have the physical ability to check all channel publications for accuracy.”

Durov also talked about the possibility of restricting access to Telegram for users in Russia and Ukraine. But he quickly changed his mind after many people reached out to say that the app was their only source of information.

Fighting fear

For stymied independent media like Holod and DOXA, Telegram, along with other social media, is an important tool to keep their work going. At the beginning of the war, various Russian media decided to follow the government’s censorship guidelines, which, according to DOXA editor Kropotkin, generated fear in journalism circles and beyond. “It is important for us, despite the risks, to continue to write and say what we want,” he said. “That’s because it sets an example for readers. If we are not afraid and continue doing what we do, it means that they, too, are not afraid.”

Declaring media outlets and individual journalists “foreign agents” has been another form of government pressure. Since the start of the war in Ukraine, 20 people were added to the list, which now includes 43 media outlets and 99 individuals including Holod magazine founder Taisia Bekbulatova.

The 2017 law requires “foreign agents” to provide financial reports every three months. They also must affix an all-caps warning to their content, even any social media posts unrelated to politics: “THIS MESSAGE (MATERIAL) WAS CREATED AND (OR) DISTRIBUTED BY A FOREIGN MEDIA OUTLET, PERFORMING THE FUNCTIONS OF A FOREIGN AGENT, AND (OR) A RUSSIAN LEGAL ENTITY, PERFORMING THE FUNCTION OF A FOREIGN AGENT.” The first two instances of non-compliance are punished with a fine. Then a criminal case is opened against the person or organisation. Those who have left Russia for good can ignore the government’s demands, but people who have relatives and property in Russia have no choice but to comply.

That these laws are unlikely to be reversed in the foreseeable future will push more and more journalists into exile. “I’m afraid that unless serious power changes occur in Russia, we will not be able to return,” said Holod editor Gorbachev. “Until the regime changes, [independent] journalism in Russia will remain outlawed.”

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