As It Happens

This newspaper had to halt publication in Russia. But it's not done covering the war

Novaya Gazeta, one of Russia's only independent media outlets, was forced to suspend publication inside Russia. Now, its journalists are once again reporting on the war and other matters of national interest through a new publication, Novaya Gazeta Europe.

Novaya Gazeta suspended operations in Russia and opened a new outlet in Europe

A security guard stands at the door of the building of the editorial office of Novaya Gazeta newspaper in Moscow on March 15, 2021. The prominent Russian investigative newspaper has suspended its publication inside the country and opened a new media outlet based out of Europe. (Ditimar Dilkoff/AFP/Getty Images)

Story Transcript

Reporting the news is no easy feat for the staff of Novaya Gazeta, one of Russia's only independent media outlets.

The investigative newspaper was forced to suspend publication inside Russia in March due to the country's media censorship laws and crackdown on dissent against the war in Ukraine. 

Now, its journalists are once again reporting on the war and other matters of national interest through a new publication, Novaya Gazeta Europe. But so far, it has no office, no website, and very few ways to reach readers inside its home country.

"We [were] the last large independent media in Russia until the end of March, and now we have to recreate everything from the ground-up in this new situation," Kirill Martynov, editor-in-chief of Novaya Gazeta Europe, told As It Happens guest host Dave Seglins, from his current base of operations in Latvia.

"We understand that information about this war is crucial for us and society too. If Russian society has any future for now, they have to understand what happened."

Why the paper stopped publishing in Russia

The newspaper suspended its Russian publication shortly after Russian President Vladimir Putin signed a bill introducing a prison sentence of up to 15 years for spreading information that goes against the Russian government's position on the war in Ukraine.

The paper promised to resume operations after the war in Ukraine — which Russia refers to as a "special military operation" — is over.

Novaya Gazeta wasn't alone. Many foreign media outlets, including the CBC, suspended operations in the country after the law was passed

A painting depicting Russian President Vladimir Putin and the country's top political figures and officials with Novaya Gazeta newspapers hangs on the wall at the independent media outlet's editorial office in Moscow. (Natalia Kolesnikova/AFP/Getty Images)

Novaya Gazeta Europe is operating as a separate entity, independent of the Moscow newsroom, says Martynov. 

He's currently running the show out of Riga, Latvia. The new publication has no official office yet.

Instead, Martynov is taking lessons from the pandemic and co-ordinating virtually with reporters inside Russia, as well as others in the U.S. and spread across Europe.

"Everyone can work this out without any office or a centralized newsroom," he said.

Working with 'undercover agents' 

Working with reporters inside Russia is particularly challenging, he said.

"They have to publish their pieces anonymously, and they have to have no legal connections to the newsroom, to the office. And so we have to decide how to pay them in [a] way that Russian authorities can't control," he said.

"Journalists will work in Russia during these months — or maybe years — like some kind of undercover agents."

Talking to sources inside Russia is also increasingly dangerous and complex. Often, the paper has to protect the identity of its sources, as the state cracks down on dissidents of all kinds, including activists and teachers

But people still want to speak up, Martynov said — even ordinary Russians. The paper is now actively connecting with Russians who are desperate for information about their loved ones onboard the Moskva, a Russian warship that sank last week in the Black Sea. 

Ukraine claims its soldiers struck the ship with missiles, but Russia claims Moskva sank while being towed after an unexplained fire. The Russian government has been tight-lipped about the fate of those onboard, and state media is toeing the line.

"For me [as a] Russian citizen, it's still unbelievable that Russian authorities can't provide any information about the situation around this naval ship," Martynov said.

"I'm not sure if something like this ever happened in, you know, in human history when you lost the flagship of your fleet, and after that, you just say, 'We don't know what happened. Please don't care. Don't ask us.'"

A 2013 file photo shows a sailor looking at the Russian missile cruiser Moskva. The warship sank last week in the Black Sea, and Russia has been tight-lipped about the cause of the sinking and the fate of those onboard. (Reuters)

So far, Novaya Gazeta Europe is reporting without a physical newspaper, or even a website. 

Martynov says reporters are making use of the few social media channels where Russians still have access to uncensored information — namely YouTube and the Telegram messenger app.

It plans to launch a website this week, he said, but there's no guarantee that Russia won't simply block access to it.

That's where journalists have to start getting creative, says Martynov. 

The staff has talked about using Cold War techniques to disseminate information, like shortwave radio. They're also looking at ways they can make themselves available through digital piracy.

And they've discussed teaching their readers the digital literacy skills they need to avoid Russian censors, for example, by installing VPN on their computers to make it seem like they're logging in from another country.

He believes it's worth the effort, and says there are plenty of Russians who agree. 

"I am pretty sure that in Russia, there are millions and maybe dozens of millions of people who don't support Putin and don't support this war. And they're really struggling for information," Martynov said.

Before Novaya Gazeta closed down, he says its website received about three million visitors daily, plus more on its social media channels. 

"So you can imagine that it's an enormous public interest [for an] independent source of information."

Written by Sheena Goodyear with files from The Associated Press. Interview produced by Kevin Robertson. 

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