A courageous anti-war movement has developed in Russia, filling the streets of cities across the country with demonstrations against Russian President Vladimir Putin’s decision to invade Ukraine.
OVD-Info, an independent media project on human rights and political persecutions in the country, reported last week that at least 7,500 Russians have been arrested in “No to War” demonstrations since the start of Putin’s invasion. On Sunday, an additional 4,300 Russians were detained as protests erupted in well over 50 cities. The total number of those arrested has continued to rise even as Russian officials implement draconian measures that United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights Michelle Bachelet said were designed to impede “the exercise of civil and political rights and criminalize non-violent behavior.” Despite the risks, Russia’s anti-war protesters understand what Dmitry Muratov, the Nobel Peace Prize–winning editor of the Russian publication Novaya Gazeta, meant when he said, “Finally, only the anti-war movement of Russians, in my opinion, can save life on this planet.”
Putin recognizes the threat he faces from demonstrations that have been urged on by Russian dissidents. So does Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky. “To all the citizens of the Russian Federation who come out to protest, I want to say—we see you,” Zelensky declared last week. “This means that you heard us. This means that you begin to trust us. Fight for us. Fight against the war.”
He renewed the direct appeal to Russians on Sunday, announcing, “Citizens of Russia! For you, this is a struggle not only for peace in Ukraine! This is a struggle for your country, for the best that was in it.”
It is clear that many Russians are hearing Zelensky’s appeals, along with those of the Ukrainian people. But for how long? Putin and his allies are making every effort to close channels of communications and to narrow the discourse. They are following a playbook that authoritarians, including those who pose as small-“d” democrats, invariably use when their actions stir domestic dissent. “The screws are being fully tightened—essentially we are witnessing military censorship,” said OVD-Info spokesperson Maria Kuznetsova.
It was only last fall when Muratov and his colleagues, along with Filipino journalist Maria Ressa, were honored by the Nobel committee “for their efforts to safeguard freedom of expression, which is a precondition for democracy and lasting peace.” Muratov announced at the time that he would accept none of the prize money, saying, “Since it is a Peace Prize, I believe it should contribute to that cause.” At the same time, he explained why authoritarians, in his country and around the world, are so bent on censorship. It is nothing so simple as vanity, he said. It is rooted in fear of the people:
What is censorship? It is a manifestation of distrust to your own people. Those who introduce censorship do not trust their people. In different countries of the world, many individuals who, of course, consider themselves independent, simply do not believe their people. They think that they are the ones to determine what the people should read, watch, see and listen to. Such lack of trust to the people is the most dangerous thing. People must be trusted.
Less than five months after Muratov spoke those words, a new law approved unanimously by the Russian parliament has barred news organizations from reporting on Ukraine in language that deviates from the official line spelled out in press statements from the Ministry of Defense and government agencies. The invasion of Ukraine cannot be referred to as an “invasion” or a “war,” and journalists who violate the new law could face up to 15 years in jail.
Military censorship in Russia has quickly moved into a new phase: from the threat of blocking and closing publications (almost fully implemented) 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 Defense. There is no doubt that this threat will be realized.
The Russian prosecutor general’s office also moved to block one of the most prominent dissenting outlets, radio station Ekho Moskvy (Echo of Moscow). The station was fined for reporting on Ukraine and, as of last Thursday, “liquidated.” Meanwhile, Dozhd (TV Rain), Russia’s last independent television channel, halted operations last week after its websites were blocked, and its chief editor and key employees fled the country following threats to their safety and freedom.
“We are looking on helplessly as Russia’s independent media are being silenced to death,” said Jeanne Cavelier, the head of the Eastern Europe and Central Asia desk for the global press freedom group Reporters Without Borders (Reporters Sans Frontières, or RSF). The Russian media regulator Roskomnadzor, which RSF identifies as a digital press freedom predator, “has blocked around 30 Russian and Ukrainian independent media sites.”
RSF reported Saturday, “The latest targets are the BBC’s Russian-language news service, the German public radio and TV broadcaster Deutsche Welle, Radio Svoboda—the Russian subsidiary of the Prague-based US broadcaster Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty (RFE/RL)—and the independent Russian site Meduza. The remaining unblocked independent media outlets—Mediazona, Novaya Gazeta, Svobodnaya Pressa, Journalist and Lenizdat—are likely to be blocked soon.”
In recent days, RSF has relaunched one of its most innovative projects, Operation #CollateralFreedom, which uses mirror site technology to enable news websites to circumvent censorship in Russia, Ukraine, and other countries.
RSF makes the point that wartime assaults on press freedom are not unique to Russia. Crackdowns on independent media have been seen in countries around the world, from Yemen to Myanmar to China. In recent months, the United States has drawn sharp rebukes from Amnesty International and press freedom groups for seeking to prosecute WikiLeaks founder Julian Assange for publishing leaked details about US military actions during the Afghanistan and Iraq wars.
The International Federation of Journalists, a group with which I have been associated over the years, has for some time been campaigning for an International Convention dedicated to the protection of journalists and media professionals. It is sorely needed, as the IFJ’s website features daily reports of legal threats, censorship, and violence directed at journalists in dozens of countries.
The IFJ and the European Federation of Journalists (EFJ) have set up a “Safety Fund for Journalists in Ukraine.” The IFJ also has condemned “new attempts from the Kremlin to limit the access to free information in Russian territory.” And EFJ General Secretary Ricardo Gutiérrez has declared, “Europe must assist Russian journalists who are facing brutal repression.”
The United States should do the same, by providing refuge for media workers who must flee Russia, Ukraine, and other conflict zones around the world. And by respecting the fact that independent, speak-truth-to-power media may be the most powerful weapon of all.
Amid all the talk about how best to stop Putin’s invasion and prevent the devastation of Ukraine, it is vital to recognize that getting honest information to the Russian people strengthens the anti-war movement—which Dmitry Muratov rightly argues “can save life on this planet.”