On Monday 15 March, Marina Ovsyannikova appeared live on Russia’s main evening television news programme, Channel One, holding a sign that said “Stop the war — Don’t believe propaganda — They’re lying to you” and chanting “Stop the war! No to war!”
She also produced a video at the same time in which she said she was ashamed to be a Channel One employee and urged Russians to protest against the war, saying: “What’s happening in Ukraine is a crime and Russia is the aggressor. The responsibility for this aggression lies with one man: [Russian president] Vladimir Putin.”
She continued, “Unfortunately, for the last few years I’ve been working for Channel One. I’ve been doing Kremlin propaganda and I’m very ashamed of it— that I let people lie from TV screens and allowed the Russian people to be zombified”.
Protest against Russian media propaganda
These incredibly brave acts received international publicity, as did the news that after she was arrested by the police they interrogated her, without access to relatives or legal counsel, for 14 hours.
A court then fined her 30,000 roubles (£215) for violating protest laws by producing the video. She was released on Tuesday evening.
The key question is whether the overarching control that Putin has over Russian media is cracking. At the same time as he announced sweeping new powers to censor the messages about the Ukraine invasion – ones that encompass all media reporting from inside Russia, including from the BBC and other Western media groups – there are signs of unease amongst other Russian journalists unhappy with the propagandist role they are forced to play.
Other state TV employees have quit in protest, including Lilia Gildeyeva, an anchor at the state-run NTV channel, and several staffers on the state-funded foreign-language news network RT, including its chief editor Maria Baronova and the London correspondent Shadia Edwards-Dashti.
Zhanna Agalakova, a Channel One journalist, has resigned as Paris correspondent after being employed by the state-run channel since 1999. She termed her resignation ‘freedom’.
Lilia Gildeyeva, an anchor for the state-owned NTV channel, has also resigned. She worked for the channel since 2006 and left the country before submitting the resignation, fearing possible restrictions on movement.
Putin’s control of Russian media
Of course, before the Ukraine invasion much of Russian media was totally subservient to the Putin regime. Starting in 2000, independent media in Russia were purposefully destroyed, brought under the state’s control or that of industrial groups close to the Kremlin, and pressured into loyalty by the government. Oligarch media owners were either co-opted, jailed or exiled, so that by 2006 most of Russia’s media were under Putin’s control.
Two of the three major Russian TV channels are directly owned by the state – Channel One and VGTRK (All-Russia State Television and Radio Broadcasting Company) – and one (NTV) is owned by a subsidiary of one of Russia’s largest oil and gas companies, Gazprom. Two of Russia’s three major news agencies, Rossiya Segodnya and Tass, are also state owned.
In parallel, a machine of total state propaganda has been built in the country, targeting both domestic and foreign audiences. One of the messages of this propaganda was that Russia was reclaiming its status as a great power, and this is at the core of the rationale in Putin’s pronouncements for the invasion of Ukraine.
Bravery of independent journalists
At the same time critical, independent journalists have been murdered for over two decades, notably editor-in-chief of Forbes Russia Paul Klebnikov (2003), Anna Politkovskaya (2006), and Anastasia Baburova (2009). These journalists published the stories Putin wanted suppressed: corruption amongst the oligarchs who supported him, the brutal role of the Russian forces in Chechnya, and – most uncomfortable for him – the methods he used to become the successor to Boris Yeltsin as Russia’s president.
Yet in spite of these assaults, independent media survived at the margins until Russia’s invasion of Ukraine. Novaya Gazeta is best known for its investigative reports on corruption and rights abuses. In a country ranked as one of the world’s most dangerous places for journalists, its reporting has earned international accolades but has also put its reporters in considerable danger.
Six of the publication’s journalists and contributors have been killed since 2000 and others attacked. Dmitry Muratov, who helped found the newspaper in 1993 and now serves as its editor-in-chief, was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize on 8 October 2021. He dedicated the prize to the six murdered journalists.
However, after the new draconian restrictions imposed by Putin in early March the paper announced it would remove material on Russia’s military actions in Ukraine from its website because of censorship. The paper said:
“Military censorship in Russia has quickly moved into a new phase … it has moved to the threat of criminal prosecution of both journalists and citizens who spread information about military hostilities that is different from the press releases of the Ministry of Defence”.
Putin’s media censorship
The country’s leading independent radio station, Echo of Moscow, was silenced, and the website of an independent streaming television channel, TV Rain, blocked, as both broadcasters refused to echo the government line that the Russian invasion of Ukraine is not a war.
This fear of reprisals meant that news outlets in Russia were forced to blur out Marina Ovsyannikova’s anti-war poster protest in their reports because of strict censorship rules requiring media to avoid the use of the words ‘war’, ‘attack’, or ‘invasion’.
Novaya Gazeta said it had blurred out the sign because it contained content that the media watchdog, Roskomnadzor, had forbidden it from sharing.
It’s clear that Putin’s repressive censorship is having an impact in terms of what Russians can read, watch and hear, but what we are also witnessing amongst some journalists is a deep distaste for the role they have been placed in as propagandists for Putin’s war machine. The key question is, how deep does this disquiet run amongst those working in Russian media?
Putin takes an obsessive interest in how his regime is reported in Russian and international media. Maybe he is beginning to realise that, just as there will be blowback in Russia from his assault on Ukraine in terms of sanctions and Russian soldiers returning in body bags, so too his much-vaunted control of Russian media is also beginning to crack.