Russia’s recently exiled media learn hard lessons abroad
Russian independent media outlets are making a painful transition from Kremlin censorship to life in exile
The challenges facing Russia’s independent media, now in exile across Europe, came to the fore this week when a major source of Russian-language news got into trouble in Latvia.
TV Rain (also known as Dozhd), a leading television station that relocated to Latvia after Russia invaded Ukraine, had its broadcasting licence revoked by the country’s media regulator for infringing broadcasting legislation.
On 1 December, Alexey Korostelev, one of the station’s anchors, made a seemingly misleading statement about the channel’s support for men mobilised into the Russian army to fight in Ukraine.
The station was immediately hit with a 10,000 euro fine and a wave of criticism against its management. It apologised and Korostelev was fired, but that wasn’t enough to stop an investigation by the Latvian security services.
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On 6 December, the National Electronic Mass Media Council revoked TV Rain’s licence because it was deemed a “national security threat”.
Overnight, a country that has become a hub for Russian independent journalism since February had lost its welcome.
These new hubs outside Russia may give the impression that Russian journalism is thriving – but there are some key problems
TV Rain is just one of hundreds of Russian media outlets now operating in exile. After the invasion, wartime censorship regulations imposed by the Kremlin made any objective coverage impossible, while several organisations that had somehow survived the Putin era were forced to shut down – including radio station Echo of Moscow and newspaper Novaya Gazeta, led by Nobel prizewinner Dmitry Muratov.
By the summer, no independent media were officially operating in Russia. Hundreds of journalists fled the country. Many operations reopened in Berlin, Riga, Tbilisi and Yerevan.
These new hubs outside Russia may give the impression that Russian journalism is thriving – but there are some key problems. As well as visas and other practical issues, these include difficulties in reaching their audiences and finding new ways of reporting about what’s happening in both Ukraine and Russia.
I’ve spent the last nine months investigating how Russian journalists have coped with these new circumstances while trying to stay in touch with their core audiences in Russia. I’ve met and spoken to 40 or so people – media founders, editors-in-chief and rank-and-file journalists.
This is what I learned.
The last decade has been difficult for the Russian media business. Independent outlets, especially those covering politics and society, struggled to survive. Even pro-Kremlin media were often in debt and had to rely on state funding.
Prior to the Russian invasion of Ukraine, donations, subscriptions and payments from YouTube had become a major source of income for many independent outlets – though the “foreign agent” status given to many in 2021 had already seriously undermined the influx of money.
After the invasion, the Russian state rapidly passed legislation punishing anyone who dared to financially support media critical of the Kremlin. Donations and subscriptions from Russian citizens put them at risk of prosecution.
Most independent media outlets were left with one source of income: support from international donors, which so far has been stable and relatively generous. However, this funding is often for specific projects – content on a particular topic for a short period of time.
This leaves many journalists in a precarious position: in exile and without a reliable income or a clear vision of the future. Even the most successful media outlets are unable to commit to employing staff on 12-month contracts, while many looking for these jobs have very scarce financial support or savings (and many have families and children to support).
Many journalists currently feel that they lack the power to change anything. They see themselves primarily as chroniclers of Russia’s crimes
Grant funding from international organisations has other downsides. The outlet can lose its connection with its core audience’s concerns because such funding priorities other (perhaps equally important) needs.
Know your audience
When you operate in exile, it’s imperative to keep close contact with your home audiences.
Not only do they want to know what is happening in their country, they can also be a vital source of information. After all, the wider your network of local contacts, the easier it is to aggregate and fact-check information. Only outlets that manage to develop a horizontal network of contacts with its readers – a sort of community of like-minded citizens – will survive months or even years of exile.
You may lack audience research or the privacy offered by online networks that hide users’ identities, but close contact with your core audience can make this community stronger. Engage them in joint activities or even turn this process into a game (think Pokémon Go, but with Russian military bases).
The breakthrough stories about Russia’s war in Ukraine have come from media that know their audience and its needs. The confessions of a Russian soldier stationed outside Kyiv; the true scale of Russia’s ‘partial mobilisation’ – these stories resonate with many ordinary Russians who feel powerless, scared and isolated in the toxic environment of Putinism and its propaganda.
News outlets need to exploit new technology in a creative way, in order to deliver information to their audience. Reporters should use pop-up media or Google Docs to test out their ideas, and be ready to engage with audiences via even the most unconventional formats (such as OnlyFans).
New waves of emigration from Russia are gradually creating new audiences – such as the ‘accidentally global’ Russians who now live across the world. Often they are starting their lives again from scratch, but sooner or later they will turn into solvent customers.
Putin’s regime has succeeded in atomising Russian society to a huge extent. This is the case for the media too. For too many years, independent Russian journalists have looked at one another as competitors, rather than allies. Success and careers were prioritised over cooperation and mutual help.
However, despite the extraordinary circumstances of the war putting many journalists in extraordinary circumstances, there are few signs that journalists or media managers are looking for mutual support. Not on an individual level, at least.
The new Samizdat app, launched last month, aggregates investigative journalism from leading news outlets and is designed to overcome Russia’s censorship system. Another informal initiative by several Russian media organisations is to explain to Big Tech companies, such as Google (owner of YouTube) or Meta (Facebook), the problems caused by their sanctions-related withdrawal from Russia and their censorship policies.
Russia’s media community must learn from the mistakes of the past – and foster the community and strength to act when the time comes.
These are positive signs, but as yet there have been no full-blown collaborations, such as joint investigations between big and small media or even unions of exiled media. These kinds of networks could provide a helping hand to numerous journalists who will be forced to flee Russia in the future.
At the same time, exile could offer a chance for formerly Moscow-based media to truly shift their view to Russia’s regions, by finding synergy and new stories with the many small regional outlets that have also left the country and are struggling to find a new identity abroad. This could be crucial in maintaining high-quality output and showing what happens in Russia outside the capital.
It’s easy to dismiss the impact that independent media can have on the course of events in Russia. After all, one more investigation into high-level corruption or unpunished crime, or another human story, will hardly change anything.
Indeed, many journalists currently feel that they lack the power to change anything. They see themselves primarily as chroniclers of Russia’s crimes, in the hope that this information will be needed after the Putin regime has, finally, collapsed. Meanwhile, Russia’s media community must learn from the mistakes of the past – and foster the community and strength to act when the time comes.
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