Almost every independent Russian journalist had a breaking point this year. For the dwindling band of Russia-based writers at the online newspaper Meduza, it was a new law threatening a 15-year jail sentence for anyone publishing “false information” on Moscow’s invasion of Ukraine.
For the editors of a newspaper in the northwestern city of Pskov, the breaking point was a series of raids by the black-masked members of the OMON, a special Russian police unit, who handcuffed the journalists and seized their equipment.
The staff of both media outlets have fled into exile. Most have relocated to Riga, the capital of neighbouring Latvia, where they stay in contact with Russian sources and publish their reports for their audience across the border.
“There’s nobody left in Russia now,” said Denis Kamalyagin, chief editor of the Pskov newspaper, known as Pskovskaya Gubernia.
“It’s terrible,” he told The Globe and Mail. “We all feel horrible, but we had to make a decision: go to jail, stop being a journalist, or stay in the profession and do whatever we have to do.”
Mr. Kamalyagin estimates that Russian authorities have blocked or shut down more than 70 media outlets since the beginning of the Russian invasion of Ukraine in late February. If they were not explicitly ordered to suspend operations, they were financially squeezed until they could not survive.
Since the war began, the Latvian government has issued visas to 206 Russian journalists and 167 of their family members, according to Janis Bekeris, press secretary for Latvia’s Foreign Ministry.
These, he said, are a humanitarian exception, since Latvia is otherwise not issuing visas to Russian nationals because of Moscow’s assault on Ukraine.
Among the Russian media outlets now in Latvia is Novaya Gazeta, the famously independent newspaper whose editor, Dmitry Muratov, was a co-winner of the Nobel Peace Prize last year. Forced to cease operations in Russia after the invasion of Ukraine, it now publishes a European edition in Riga.
Many other Russian journalists have moved to the capitals of former Soviet republics such as Georgia or Armenia. These cities, like Riga, are places where Russian is widely spoken, and operating costs are cheaper than in Western Europe.
“It was very hard for us to leave Russia, but Latvia has been very welcoming and well-organized,” Mr. Kamalyagin said. “They welcomed us with love. I feel at home here now.”
Some of the Russian journalists already had links abroad, helping them adjust to life in exile. Mr. Kamalyagin had been attending occasional seminars at an institute in Riga, while Meduza had a base in Riga for the past eight years.
“We founded our business in exile,” said Katerina Abramova, head of communications for Meduza. “We would joke our bodies are in Riga, but we wake up and go to bed in Russia because we are all the time on the Russian agenda.”
Meduza was launched in 2014 after Russian journalist Galina Timchenko was fired from her job as editor-in-chief of the Russian news portal Lenta.ru.
The Wall Street Journal reported at the time that Ms. Timchenko was replaced by the editor of a pro-Kremlin website after she published an article with a link to an interview with a Ukrainian nationalist leader accused by Moscow of extremism. She is now chief executive officer and publisher of Meduza.
Locating in Riga put Meduza out of the reach of Russian authorities more than 840 kilometres to the east in Moscow.
“It was on purpose to be prepared for the worst-case scenario,” Ms. Abramova said.
“And the worst-case scenario has happened,” she added, referring to Moscow’s crackdown on independent journalism.
In early March, when Russia passed the law to impose lengthy prison terms for publishing “false information” on its Ukraine war, Meduza still had many reporters and editors in Moscow. The new law was the final straw. Meduza moved two dozen staffers, their partners, families and pets out of Russia.
For security reasons, Meduza will not disclose the size of its newsroom. But Ms. Abramova said over time the staff has averaged several dozen people, including the IT department and the back office.
The Kremlin had been targeting and harassing the independent media long before the Ukraine war. In 2020, the government declared that Mr. Kamalyagin was a foreign agent – a designation that imposed legal restrictions on his activities. The same designation was used against Meduza in April, 2021, making it an outcast among Russian businesses.
In a matter of days, Meduza lost all its advertising from Russia – which had been the mainstay of its revenue. “Business in Russia was afraid to be associated with anything political or undesirable,” Ms. Abramova said.
In retrospect, she said, the Kremlin appears to have been preparing for its invasion of Ukraine by eliminating Russia’s independent media.
Meduza scrambled to survive. It gave up its workplace offices. It cut expenses. And it launched a crowdfunding campaign to raise support from its audience. “Our readers literally saved us,” Ms. Abramova said.
Western financial sanctions on Russia in response to Moscow’s assault on Ukraine further strained Meduza’s operations. With Visa and Mastercard, Paypal and the SWIFT network blocked for Russians, the news site’s 30,000 subscribers in Russia were unable to pay their monthly fees.
Once again, Meduza pivoted. It launched a campaign aimed at international and Western audiences, asking for donors to “stand up for Russians who want to support us but can’t do it any more,” Ms. Abramova said.
It’s hard watching what’s unfolding today, she said. “It’s a sad story and a lonely story. The most awful thing is not that you can’t go home – the saddest part is when you see your country killing people from another country: children, women, soldiers.”
Some Russian media outlets in Latvia are likely to gain financial support from European donors and other international organizations, who have already met with several Russian editors in Riga to discuss their business models and potential programs that could help them.
But the exiled Russian media still face some key challenges: how to maintain their audiences and how to protect their sources and freelancers in Russia. The Pskov newspaper, for example, had to shut down its website for two months. Even its social-media channels were disrupted for two weeks. When they reopened, their audience was a small fraction of its normal size.
Despite being forced into exile, Mr. Kamalyagin recently dug up an exclusive story about a group of 60 Russian soldiers who refused to fight in Ukraine. The number has now risen to several hundred, he said.
“As long as we have sources in Russia, and as long as we can get access to data and documents, we will keep working,” Mr. Kamalyagin said.
“It’s a strange feeling to work this way, but we have no choice – we have to do the maximum to inform people about what’s going on. Our work has become more important now, because there are fewer and fewer investigative journalists inside Russia.”
Ms. Abramova said she hopes Russians take note of Meduza’s independent reporting.
“There are people who are deeply influenced by Russian propaganda, but there are also people who know something wrong is going on but are scared,” she said.
“It’s our duty to keep them informed.”
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