In the last few months, the Russian government has significantly tightened control over the media sphere, the new measures including amendments to the “fake news” law and the law on foreign agents, as well as the mass blocking
of independent media and social media platforms
As a result, the media sphere in Russia has been sterilized, deprived of alternative positions and opinions. Some outlets have stopped reporting on the war altogether, turning to “neutral” topics like lifestyle or hyperlocal
news. Others continue their
efforts to discuss the war by using Aesopian language and writing between the lines. Still, a large number of journalists and outlets have chosen to leave Russia and continue their work, rapidly forming an entire, new community of Russian media in exile. “Having left, you can do something useful”
Fleeing the country became a viable decision for many media professionals in order to avoid persecution and carry on their profession. Foreign media like the Russian service of the BBC and Radio Svoboda have relocated their entire newsrooms abroad, landing in Lithuania, Latvia, Armenia, Georgia and Turkey, some of the most popular destinations for Russian professionals who left their country following the invasion of Ukraine.
There are no exact statistics on the number of media professionals who have fled the country, but rough estimates indicate
about several hundred of people. “Going to prison, in my view, means complete disappearance. You cease to exist as a professional and as a person... And having left, you can at least do something useful. That’s why I’ve left,” explains
Alesya Marakhovskya, editor of the data department at iStories
) and a “foreign agent” since August 2021.
Even in the current grim circumstances, Russian journalists in exile share an understanding that solutions and forms of independent journalism will be found. The
main question is what the resilient models for independent journalism in exile are.
Nikolai (all names used in this article have been changed), the editor of a news outlet whose whole team left Russia and re-established their main office in exile, says that the technological and social realities open some avenues for continuing journalistic activities from abroad.
“Our big advantage is that Russia is starting to close only now… so there is a large layer of civil society that remains inside [the country] and wants change,” according to Nikolai. “Given the availability of the internet, information will leak out, and there will be opportunities to verify it for a long time to come; it would be very hard to turn [Russia] into North Korea quickly… we won’t have Soviet-level isolation.” Audience matters
Despite growing the Russian (and Russian-language) diaspora, media professionals still consider Russians inside the country their target audience. Nikolai explains: “I really hope that we will be able to remain an outlet about Russia and for Russia in the first place. Immigrants are an important part of our readers, but we really don’t want to become an immigrant outlet that each month loses more of its understanding of what is going on in Russia and what perspectives are significant inside of Russia.”
The painful questions are who the audience is and how big it is.
There is no exact data about the audience for independent media. According to Denis Volkov, director of the Levada Center, before the invasion it was about 7-8%, and a bit higher if we consider not only professional media but also blogs. As for the makeup of this audience, “there are no surprises here,” says Volkov. “It is, of course, people who are younger, but not the youngest, 30-35-40 years old, an active audience, which had already been interested in politics. It is, of course, urban. Primarily from the large cities.” Volkov believes the “semi-elite activist layer” represents the core of the loyal audience.
According to Volkov, since the invasion the Russian audience of these media has decreased. Firstly, many media were blocked, which inevitably resulted in audience loss. He explains: “When the platform changes – for instance, the Novaya Gazeta
website stopped working, and the new website of Novaya Gazeta Europe
started instead, this results in audience reduction… So a change of platform means an instant crash [of audience]. No matter how popular you are… it is impossible to simply transfer the old audience to the new platform.”
Secondly, part of the audience has left Russia, hence they can’t be measured by surveys conducted within the country. It is also hard to measure
the audience from Russia using VPN to access the independent media in exile that are blocked in the country.
Audience trust is another sensitive point for the future of independent media in exile. In the Soviet days, Western radio stations, such as Voice of America, Deutsche Welle and BBC, were regarded as sources of alternative information by many people in the USSR. By the end of the 1970s, more than half of the Soviet urban population
listened to foreign broadcasting more or less regularly. Such a level of trust of voices from abroad is inconceivable in today’s Russia.