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Journalists impeded, not muzzled, by Russian reporting rules

April 1, 2022 GMT
FIL E- Journalists film a TV screen translating a court session of Russian opposition leader Alexei Navalny, in Pokrov, Vladimir region, east of Moscow, Russia, March 22, 2022. (AP Photo, File)
FIL E- Journalists film a TV screen translating a court session of Russian opposition leader Alexei Navalny, in Pokrov, Vladimir region, east of Moscow, Russia, March 22, 2022. (AP Photo, File)
FIL E- Journalists film a TV screen translating a court session of Russian opposition leader Alexei Navalny, in Pokrov, Vladimir region, east of Moscow, Russia, March 22, 2022. (AP Photo, File)
FIL E- Journalists film a TV screen translating a court session of Russian opposition leader Alexei Navalny, in Pokrov, Vladimir region, east of Moscow, Russia, March 22, 2022. (AP Photo, File)
FIL E- Journalists film a TV screen translating a court session of Russian opposition leader Alexei Navalny, in Pokrov, Vladimir region, east of Moscow, Russia, March 22, 2022. (AP Photo, File)

NEW YORK (AP) — In a recent dispatch from Moscow, BBC correspondent Steve Rosenberg noted that a new Russian law required him to refer to the invasion of Ukraine as a “special military operation.” Then he quoted a Russian human rights lawyer who liberally used what is now a forbidden word: “war.”

The restrictions on how news organizations can report in Russia, which carry punishment of up to 15 years in prison, have impeded journalists, but not muzzled them. Many continue to report aggressively, even from outside the country, by making use of modern tools unavailable a generation ago: the Internet, encrypted communications, mobile-phone cameras in the hands of millions — and simple bravery.

“I don’t think there’s any kind of lack of information about what is happening in Russia,” said Vasily Gatov, a Boston-based Russian media researcher whose mother still lives in Moscow.

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The new law, abruptly put in place March 4, placed restrictions on use of the word “war” and threatens punishment for any stories that go against the Russian government’s version of events — what it refers to as “false information.” It immediately had a chilling effect for journalists serving audiences primarily in Russia, and it also forced those reporting to the outside world to reevaluate operations.

The BBC suspended its reporting from Russia for several days, but restored it on March 8. Some news organizations have pulled journalists out of the country, others have stripped bylines from stories. Concerned about safety, several news organizations have said little or nothing publicly about how their journalists are deployed.

Reporters who displeased authorities in the old Soviet Union could be expelled from the country. But a law that says they can be put in jail for 15 years is a different risk entirely, said Ann Cooper, who was an NPR bureau chief in Moscow and former executive director of the Committee to Protect Journalists.

“The change to the criminal code, which seems designed to turn any independent reporter into a criminal purely by association, makes it impossible to continue any semblance of normal journalism inside the country,” John Micklethwait, Bloomberg editor in chief, said in telling his staff that its reporters would be pulled from Russia.

Despite the exit, Bloomberg was credited with breaking significant news by reporting March 23 that Russian climate envoy Anatoly Chubais had stepped down and left the country. The story carried no dateline or byline, except a tag noting Simon Kennedy’s “assistance.”

The sentencing of Russian dissident Alexei Navalny to a longer stint in prison on March 22 tested how journalists could operate in a stricter environment.

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Even though the decision was handed down at a penal colony 70 miles from from Moscow. The New York Times and The Washington Post both did thorough stories using a variety of sources: other news agencies, Twitter and Instagram posts, video of the hearing shown on YouTube, interviews with Navalny aides.

The Times had moved its staff out of Russia for safety reasons. The Moscow bureau chief, Anton Troianovski, is reporting from Istanbul, Turkey, and other journalists are scattered throughout Europe, said Jim Yardley, the Times’s Europe editor.

“We continue to cover Russia closely — monitoring Russian television, government briefings and social media, while staying in touch with and interviewing sources, experts, and Russians who are still inside the country,” Yardley said. “We hope that we can safely return to Moscow soon, but for now, we are working hard to cover the country from the outside.”

That’s where many of the new tools for keeping journalists informed come into play; Telegram is being used frequently for encrypted conversations, said Jeff Trimble, a lecturer at Ohio State University and a former Moscow reporter for U.S. News & World Report. Plenty of video is available, but must be checked carefully for accuracy, he said.

The Associated Press wrote a story following Navalny’s sentencing about small signs of defiance emerging in Russia. It had a New York dateline and no byline, but no shortage of detail, including police in the city of Nizhny Novgorod detaining a silent demonstrator who displayed a blank sign.

The AP has written some unbylined stories with Moscow datelines and also broken news from outside sources, including a March 30 story about U.S. intelligence sources saying that Russian President Vladimir Putin had been misled by his military aides about the war because of their fear of delivering bad news from the battlefield.

Julie Pace, the AP’s executive editor, said it’s vital to continue to report from countries around the world where press freedoms have been curtailed. Executives at competing news organizations are now engaging with each other about safety and security issues in Russia, she said.

Without the physical presence of reporters, it’s more difficult to keep track of how the war and economic sanctions are affecting day-to-day life in Russia. That makes Rosenberg’s BBC reports stand out: he visited a grocery store to see how purchase limits are in place to prevent hoarding, and interviewed an 88-year-old woman who was selling possessions to buy food and medicine.

“It’s always important for journalists to have their feet on the ground,” Cooper said.

Television journalists are affected more severely by the response to restrictions. Live shots from Moscow’s Red Square have disappeared. The NBC “Nightly News” brief report on Navalny’s sentence came from Richard Engel in Ukraine. CBS News has run BBC reports. CNN used old-fashioned “Kremlinology” techniques of examining pictures to speculate on whether Russian defense minister Sergei Shoigu has fallen out of favor.

The BBC said it restored its reporting from Russia after considering the new law’s implications “alongside the urgent need to report from inside Russia.” However, the company’s Russian-language service is no longer reporting from inside the country.

That’s left Rosenberg to wander the streets. In one report, he interviewed a parliament member who insisted there were no political prisoners in all of Russia.

“That is precisely the picture the Kremlin paints for the Russian people, hoping that they’ll believe that there’s no repression here, no war, no problem,” Rosenberg said.

The BBC declined a request to talk about whether there’s been Russian government pushback against his work.

After the new law was announced, ABC News’ James Longman reported from Moscow about the early impact of the West’s economic sanctions and Putin’s “assault on free speech.”

“There is a creeping realization that 30 years of progress is about to end,” Longman said.

In the weeks since, there have been no reports from inside Russia by ABC News correspondents.