How to dodge media censorship in Russia: Leave and use Telegram

How to dodge media censorship in Russia: Leave and use Telegram
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Following Russia’s invasion of Urkaine and a crackdown on the media, independent outlet DOXA – like others – had to reinvent itself.

More than 100 people gathered outside of the Dorogomilovsky district court in Moscow on the foggy morning of April 12. Inside the court, four DOXA magazine journalists were about to hear their sentence in a year-long criminal case. They were accused of encouraging minors to protest in a YouTube video they published in the midst of pro-Navalny rallies in January 2021. As hours passed, the crowd and the police presence grew. A woman with balloons in Ukrainian flag colours and six more people were arrested by the police. Tension rose. Finally, at 5:00pm the judge announced the sentence – two years of “correctional labour”.

In different circumstances and in a different country, such an outcome might have depressed the defendants. But the journalists were relieved. The measure obligates the four – Alla Gutnikova, Armen Aramyan, Natalia Tyshkevich, and Vladimir Metelkin – to work in Russia and give five to 20 percent of their earnings to the government.

It could have been worse – a two-year jail term. The four had already spent a year under house arrest, and this latest sentence meant freedom: their tracking anklets would be removed immediately, they would be able to leave their houses at any time and use the internet again.

The crowd cheered as three of the four journalists left the court. Tyshkevich was taken to jail where she was serving a 15-day sentence in another case, for a 2017 Instagram post with a Ukrainian coat of arms.

‘New level of danger’

Today, more than two months into Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, almost all of DOXA’s 20 journalists have either left Russia or stopped reporting. So have more than 150 Moscow-based reporters and editors of Meduza, BBC Russian, Dozhd television, Ekho Moskvy radio station, Novaya Gazeta, the Moscow Times and other independent media.

DOXA’s editors felt they had no other choice. “Otherwise, we couldn’t guarantee their safety,” said one DOXA editor who uses the pseudonym Richard Kropotkin. “This was a test for our editorial team, because some people, the majority, felt that this was а new level of danger.”

In early March the Russian government introduced a law punishing “fakes about the Russian army” with up to 15 years in prison. “Fakes” included citing Ukrainian sources and using the word “war” instead of the government-approved “special operation”.

“We had a long discussion with the editorial team, and we concluded that we can’t self-censor,” said a DOXA editor, Katya Moroko, over a video call from Germany. “Any small step towards compromising with this government meant that they would ‘tighten the screws’ even more, and this compromise wouldn’t save us.”

After four days of almost non-stop coverage of the war, the DOXA website was blocked by the Russian government regulator Roskomnadzor, after a post about how to talk with friends and relatives who support the Russian invasion went viral on social media. In the following days, two dozen other independent Russian media were blocked or taken off air. “Those [first] days were really terrible,” said Masha Menshikova, DOXA’s news editor who is currently based in Germany. “I just sat at the computer from morning to night … Everything has changed for us because we have never written about the war in such detail. We wrote about universities.”

Popularity among students

DOXA started as a student magazine at the Higher School of Economics (HSE), one of Moscow’s most prestigious and most liberal universities. It quickly became one of Russia’s biggest media outlets covering education. In the summer of 2019, high school and university students in Moscow took to the streets when several opposition candidates were not allowed to run in the city council election. DOXA actively covered the rallies and asked inconvenient questions about the election campaign of HSE vice-rector Valeria Kassamara. In opinion pieces and social media posts, the magazine supported students who were arrested. As a result, the HSE discontinued the magazine’s registration as a student organisation, stating that the university is “beyond politics”. This, however, only contributed to DOXA’s popularity.

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