Offshoring local journalism

November 5, 2022
Facing unprecedented government censorship and repression at home, independent news outlets and journalists from Russia have been forced to relocate abroad. Among them are also those that cover regional and local issues.
The news outlet Proekt estimates that, as of mid-August, at least 504 journalists left Russia since late 2021, most of them after the outbreak of the war on February 24. Others are likely to have followed since mobilization was announced in late September. Proekt itself now operates outside of Russia, having been designated as an “undesirable organization” by the government in 2021.

Most of Russia’s major independent news outlets like Meduza, Mediazona, The Bell, Holod, Current Time, The Insider, and others have been forced to move their operations abroad due to wartime censorship and heightened political repression inside the country. Yet among the journalists and media teams relocating abroad in recent months are also those that report on regional and local issues.

In the Pskov region, the online news outlet Pskovskaya Guberniya had its office searched in early March in connection with a criminal case against the chief editor Denis Kamalyagin, who was designated a “foreign agent” in 2020. Local authorities accused Kamalyagin of defaming Pskov governor Mikhail Vedernikov. After law enforcement officials seized journalists' equipment from their office, Kamalyagin and several other employees at the outlet decided to leave Russia out of safety concerns since they had no intention to abide by new censorship rules. Many other regional journalists and media teams have done the same.

Danil Livson, who manages the Belgorod-focused online news resource Bletgorod, told journalists from 7x7 that he started to receive threats due to his coverage of the war in Ukraine and its impacts on the lives of Belgorodians. “They started writing to me that, since I had previously expressed sympathy for Ukraine, it meant that I was an enemy, my public post should not exist, and most likely I should not exist either,” said Livson. In the Spring, he moved to Georgia, where he continues to run Bletgorod.

Of course, reporting on local news from abroad is not simple. Uprooted journalists lose direct contact with the everyday goings on and events on the ground that are so crucial to reporting. In some cases, journalists face criticism when they leave Russia.

“Some of my detractors found out that I had gone abroad, and wrote, 'Well, you know Lyudmila is doing all this from Germany and wants to fool us,’” recalled Yaroslavl journalist Ludmila Shabueva in an interview with 7x7. “Some people fell for it and began to say that I work in the media, and my readers do not know I'm in Europe… I don’t think it matters where an author writes from.” Shabueva says that although many journalists from the publication where she works – Mesto Sily (Place of Power) – have left Russia, some remain and continue to report stories on the ground.

On the upside, covering the news from abroad does allow outlets to report more freely given the absence of direct punishment for breaking wartime censorship rules. But writing openly and critically about the Russian government and the war in Ukraine usually leads to websites being blocked by state censors. In these cases, readers in Russia need to use a VPN to access news content.

Still, some regional news publications operating outside Russia adhere to censorship laws. One example is Novaya Vkladka (New Tab). In late May, a group of freelance journalists from various regions across Russia founded the outlet, which describes itself as focusing on “how [people] live in Russia’s provinces after February 24.” The outlet’s lead coordinator, Mikhail Danilovich, used to work as a freelance journalist in Perm, but in March he relocated to Riga, Latvia. Several other journalists affiliated with Novaya Vkladka also left Russia, but others remain in the country.

Although Novaya Vkladka adheres to government censorship rules by not using the word “war” in its publications, writing three asterisks (“***”) instead, back in August the website was blocked by Roskomnadzor – the government censoring agency – following the publication of an article about a Tuva politician who openly opposed the war. However, Danilovich decided to remove the article from the website, after which access in Russia was restored. Though the article could still be found on Novaya Vkladka’s Telegram channel.

Danilovich told Novaya Gazeta Europe that he does not make any money from the work he does at Novaya Vkladka, instead managing the website on a volunteer basis. Other journalists involved in the project also do not receive payment for their work. Regional journalism was never a money-making job, Danilovich admits, and even before the war it was risky business.

In this sense, emigration is not a panacea for journalists. Editorial teams need to find new ways to fund their work, which is especially challenging for regional outlets given their smaller audience sizes. Relying on advertising money is basically no longer an option. Instead, journalists are seeking funding through non-profit donors. Proekt reports that the number of grant applications from Russian journalists to major international donors has tripled since the start of 2022, while the total amount of grants issued for the same period grew by 40-50%. So too has the number of organizations engaged in this work grown.

The war in Ukraine and domestic political repression continue to have detrimental effects on regional and local news reporting in Russia. While dozens of independent media outlets continue to provide quality coverage of national news events, Pskovskaya Guberniya chief editor Denis Kamalyagin worries not enough people are paying attention to sub-national issues in Russia.

“If local media dies out now, we'll be left with only [news about] the problems of Moscow and St. Petersburg. And all of Europe judges us by Moscow and St. Petersburg, and they [the residents of Europe] were sure that Russians would be against the war, not realizing that there is a completely different Russia. If we don't show this Russia - a grimy, unsightly Russia that is very hard to communicate with - we won't have an objective picture,” said Kamalyagin to journalists from 7x7.

Digest by Mack Tubridy for the Russia.Post editorial team.
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