World

'Fake news' law forced many Russian journalists abroad. Those who remain must weigh truth against safety

More than 150 Russian journalists have left the country since a new "false information" law was passed at the beginning of March. And last week, one of Russia's last-remaining independent news outlets decided to join the other newsrooms who have stopped operating because of the restrictions on what they can publish.

Novaya Gazeta the latest media outlet to stop publication because of restrictions on Ukraine content

Nadezhda Prusenkova, deputy editor of Novaya Gazeta, in the newspaper's Moscow office on March 22. The paper decided to suspend publication last week after receiving a second warning from the communications regulator about its content. (Corinne Seminoff/CBC)

For most of March, the Friday edition of Novaya Gazeta, which until it suspended operation last week, was one of Russia's last remaining independent news outlets still based within the country, featured a blank two-page spread. 

There was no text; no pictures; just an explanation. 

Because the paper wasn't allowed to publish anything about what is currently happening in Ukraine other than the Russian government's official version, Novaya Gazeta would rather not publish anything at all, the explanation read. 

"It's a compromise," deputy editor Nadezhda Prusenkova said at the time. "It's our way to say all we want."

Novaya Gazeta has since decided to stop publishing altogether after getting a second warning from Roskomnadzor, the communications regulator. Two warnings in a year can put the paper at risk of losing its licence, Prusenkova told CBC News over email this past weekend.

"We decided to prevent the risk of destroying the newspaper," Prusenkova said. "It's morally difficult, but it's a challenge."

Law targets 'false information'

Since the Russian government unanimously passed a law on March 4 that essentially criminalized objective reporting on Russia's military actions in Ukraine, more than 150 Russian journalists have left the country, according to the U.S.-based Committee to Protect Journalists

The law, which some have dubbed the "fake news" law, targets what the government deems "false information," including in social media posts, and can carry a maximum penalty of 15 years in prison. At least one Russian journalist is being investigated under the new law for sharing pictures related to the bombing of a maternity hospital in Mariupol in southern Ukraine. 

WATCH | Russian journalists fear Kremlin's reach even after they fled: 

Russian journalists living in exile abroad, still fearful of the Kremlin

3 months ago
Duration 3:21
Journalists who fled Russia amid the crackdown on press freedoms are still living with fear abroad — for their families back home, fellow journalists who stayed behind and the threat of being targeted by the Kremlin.

People are forbidden from using the word "war" or "invasion" to describe what is happening in Ukraine. The government insists on calling it a "special military operation," a position it has maintained since Russian troops first entered Ukraine from the north, east and south on Feb. 24. 

Since then, the United Nations estimate that more than 10 million people have been driven from their homes, and at least 1,417 civilians have died. Russian President Vladimir Putin has said troops are on a special operation to demilitarize and "de-Nazify" Ukraine.

While some independent Russian journalists have left and are working from nearby countries, such as Georgia, Latvia and Lithuania, including about seven of Novaya Gazeta's employees, Prusenkova says the remaining staff will stay in Moscow. 

Novaya Gazeta blurred out the word "war" in English and in Russian, from a sign a producer held while interrupting a broadcast on Russian state television. (Corinne Seminoff/CBC)

"We definitely do not plan to leave and make a newspaper in exile," she said. "We will make here the best newspaper in the world in Russian for Russian citizens. We hope to be back in a couple of months or by autumn. I don't know for sure yet. But we will definitely be back."

Even before they received the latest warning from the media regulator, the paper was having to do journalism with "too many caveats," Prusenkova said.

"This is a time when we can't call a spade a spade because we can't risk the safety of our employees."

Asked what she would put on the front page of her paper if there weren't state censorship, she paused, hesitated, her eyes welling up: a photo of the maternity hospital that was bombed in the southern Ukrainian city of Mariupol

"These pictures from there seem to be the best words to me," she said. "They can show the horror of what is happening there."

Ukrainian emergency employees and volunteers carry an injured pregnant woman from the maternity hospital in Mariupol that was damaged in an airstrike on March 9. The woman and her baby later died. (Evgeniy Maloletka/The Associated Press)

Nobel medal auction

Novaya Gazeta was launched in 1993 with the help of former president Mikhail Gorbachev, who used part of the money he got when he was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize. 

Last fall, that same prize went to the paper's long-time editor, Dmitry Muratov, who shared it with Philippine journalist Marie Ressa. 

Novaya Gazeta's editor in chief, Dmitry Muratov, pictured last October, said he would auction off his Nobel Peace Prize medal and donate the proceeds to an NGO supporting Ukrainian refugees. (Maxim Shemetov/Reuters)

He now plans to auction off the Nobel medal and donate the proceeds to an NGO supporting Ukrainian refugees. 

Prusenkova says the paper was in discussions with Christie's auction house, but sanctions levied against Russia mean it might not be possible to sell the medal through that platform. 

Novaya Gazeta joins other newsrooms that decided to suspend operations or close completely after it became increasingly difficult to report on the situation in Ukraine. 

Editor in chief Aleksei Venediktov at the offices of Echo of Moscow, one of the best-known independent radio stations of the post-Soviet era. It announced early in March it would shut down after authorities demanded it restrict access because of its coverage of Ukraine. (AFP/Getty Images)

Just a week after Russian entered Ukraine, the board of directors for Echo Moscow, an independent radio station, voted to close the station after it came under pressure for its reporting on Ukraine. 

And independent television station TV Rain said it would suspend operations after its website was blocked.

In the days after the media law was signed by Putin, Russian journalists headed for the border. Some crossed into Latvia, Estonia and Finland while others caught some of the few remaining flights to Istanbul and Tbilisi, Georgia. 

Co-owners of cable channel Dozhd (TV Rain), Natalya Sindeyeva, left, and Alexander Vinokurov, right, attend a press conference at the channel office in Moscow, on Feb, 4, 2014. The channel has decided to suspend operations. (Vasily Maximov/AFP/Getty Images)

Reporting outside of Russia

Sergey Smirnov, editor of independent news outlet Mediazona, drove with his two dogs through Latvia, to Vilnius, Lithuania, which has increasingly become a hub for Russians trying to escape their government's reach. 

Smirnov packed his laptop and a suitcase but had to leave his family behind, including his two sons. His youngest, who was just a month old, didn't have a passport. 

"I fear about my family," said Smirnov.

Sergey Smirnov now runs the Mediazona newsroom from his studio apartment in Vilnius, Lithuania. He's seen here on March 23, 2022. (Briar Stewart/CBC)

His apartment has been searched before, he said, and last year, he was sentenced to 25 days in prison after being arrested while out for a walk with his son.

He was charged with calling for people to join an unauthorized gathering after he retweeted a tweet that included information about a rally in support of jailed opposition leader Alexei Navalny. 

Even in Vilnius, he is still on the Russian government's radar. 

WATCH | Russian civilans opt to leave home over Ukraine fears:

Russians who oppose the war flee abroad

3 months ago
Duration 2:37
Russians are choosing to leave their country over feelings of disgust, guilt and outrage about the war in Ukraine. It’s drawing the ire of President Vladimir Putin, who called Russians opposed to the invasion, ‘scum’ and ‘traitors.’

Investigated for a tweet 

An hour before he spoke with CBC in his studio apartment, Smirnov received a message from Russia's Ministry of Internal Affairs. It notified him that at the request of a deputy of Russia's State Duma, he was being investigated for sharing slanderous information about figure skating coach Eteri Tutberidze.

In February, during the Winter Olympics, Smirnov retweeted a thread about the coach who came under public scrutiny after Russian star skater Kamila Valieva tested positive for a banned substance. In a tweet, he sarcastically questioned why Russia's skaters should be banned. 

The tweet could land him back in jail if he were in Russia, but he has no plans to return, he said.

The majority of Mediazona's staff, about 30 out of 32 employees, have left Russia, and Smirnov's family plan to join him soon in Lithuania. 

The country has become a destination for not only Russian citizens but also Belarussians. 

There has been such an influx that Lithuania's State Security Department put out a post on Facebook warning that Russian and Belarussian intelligence agencies could step up monitoring of opposition activists and journalists in the country.

WATCH | Devastation of attacks on civilian areas visible on streets of Bucha:

Ukraine accuses Russian troops of killing civilians in Bucha

3 months ago
Duration 1:26
Ukrainian forces recently liberated the town of Bucha, northwest of Kyiv, from Russian forces. What they found was destruction and allegations of civilians being killed by Russian troops.

Advising journalists to leave if they can

Dmitriy Semenov, 32, left Russia for Vilnius four years ago. In Russia, he worked as a political activist. Now, he's a broadcast journalist for the online news site Delfi. 

In recent weeks, he has received phone calls from Russian journalists asking for his advice on leaving the country and where to settle. 

"I advise everyone who has the opportunity to leave, although there are very few opportunities for such people now," Semenov said.

Dmitriy Semenov was in Vilnius on a work trip when he learned that he might be detained by police in Russia for his political activism, so he stayed and settled in Lithuania. He's seen in the Delfi office on March 23, 2022. (Briar Stewart/CBC)

Several countries have not only closed airspace to Russian aircraft, but have stopped issuing visas to Russian citizens. 

Given the environment in Russia, it makes sense for Russian journalists to broadcast from abroad, Semenov said, but the real problem is that independent journalism isn't going to reach the right people.

Independent journalism not reaching enough Russians

"[They] mainly cover that part of the audience that already understands everything, but the rest of the audience that justifies Putin's aggression, they do not believe it and do not watch it. "

Several news sites have been blocked by Russia and are only accessible there through a VPN that masks a user's location.

Delfi recently received a letter from Roskomnadzor, Russia's communications regulator, Semenov said. It warned that Delfi's Lithuania site would be blocked in Russia if it didn't pull down an article that used the word "invasion" when describing events in Ukraine. 

The Novaya Gazeta newsroom last month, Until last week, the paper continued to report from Russia but had to censor its content. (Corinne Seminoff/CBC)

ABOUT THE AUTHOR

Briar Stewart is the Moscow correspondent for CBC News. She has been covering Canada and beyond for more than 15 years and can be reached at briar.stewart@cbc.ca or on Twitter @briarstewart

with files from Corinne Seminoff

now