Shortly after Russia passed a new censorship law that criminalized accurate reporting on the war in Ukraine, CNN executives on two continents came together for an emergency video call to figure out what would happen next. then.
The 24-hour news network had employed many correspondents in Russia since the last years of the Soviet Union. Now their future in the country, and perhaps their safety, was up in the air.
Senior producers in New York and London spoke to lawyers at CNN headquarters in Atlanta and reporters in Moscow about the new law, which raised the prospect of 15 years in prison for journalists who called the war in Ukraine of “war”. Within hours, the network ceased broadcasting in Russia, joining other Western outlets – including the BBC, Bloomberg News and ABC News – which temporarily or partially suspended their Moscow-based operations.
“When it comes to a potential threat to someone, it far outweighs anything else,” CNN executive vice president of programming Michael Bass said in an interview. “It would be best if our reporting and story coverage continued to report daily and multiple times a day from Russia, but an assessment had to be made of what can be done for your people.”
Echoing the exodus of journalists from Afghanistan after the Taliban swept the country last year, media executives and editors are engaged in a high-stakes debate about risk in Russia. Is it prudent, do they ask their journalists every day via secure applications, to gather information in an increasingly hostile and isolated country? If not, is it possible to continue from outside its borders?
“There’s a constant minute-by-minute sorting out of that balance,” said Matthew Baise, director of digital strategy at Voice of America, the US government broadcaster, which until recently employed several journalists reporting from Russia. . “Every day we try to adapt to the situation there without putting people’s lives at risk, but we also need to have a way to get the stories out of the country.”
Today, a dozen Voice of America employees left Russia. and others are keeping a low profile, Mr. Baise said.
Clarissa Ward, CNN’s chief international correspondent, said in an interview from Kyiv, Ukraine that “it’s a blow not to be able to do the kind of journalism that we all aspire to in Russia right now.”
“It’s not just a global audience – there are a lot of Russians in Russia who are looking to international media for a fuller perspective,” said Ms Ward, who has been reporting from Ukraine for nearly 10 years. two months. A crucial perspective that can be lost, she said, is “how Russia sees this war, what ordinary Russians think about it.”
In Ukraine, journalists face more direct – and life-threatening – risks. Brent Renaud, American documentary filmmaker, was shot in the head on Sunday in the suburbs of kyiv. On Monday, Fox News correspondent Benjamin Hall was hospitalized after being injured outside Kyiv.
A few days earlier, Ms Ward described over the phone how she and her CNN team work from 9 a.m. to 4 a.m. each day, starting with assessing whether it is safe to travel outside of their hotel. Often, patchy cell service and security issues force them to improvise: A 15-minute live dispatch from a metro station, where hundreds of Ukrainians were sheltering from a bombardment, was filmed on the phone from a producer.
For now, in Russia, the threat to journalism is statutory, but still serious: under the new law, many correspondents face years in prison for doing their job. This led to a staggering disintegration of independent Russian media and plunged international news outlets into uncertainty.
Amnesty International said on Thursday that 150 journalists had fled the country to escape the new law, which Marie Struthers, the group’s director for Eastern Europe and Central Asia, called a “scorched earth strategy that turned the Russian media landscape into a desert”.
Amid the strangled flow of outside news, some have gone to great lengths to disrupt the news blackout inside Russia. On Monday, a state television worker burst into the live broadcast of Russia’s most-watched news program, shouting, “Stop the war! and holding up a sign that read, “They’re lying to you here.” The employee, Marina Ovsyannikova, was arrested after the demonstration.
A bill introduced last week would create a registry of anyone involved, now or in the past, with media or other organizations that Russia has deemed a “foreign agent”.
News outlets have scrambled to find a working solution as the credible media cohort shrinks and threatens to leave audiences inside and outside the world’s greatest nation blind to its dealings.
“There are many other parts of the world where it’s dangerous to be a journalist and where newsrooms have these debates and discussions,” said Damian Radcliffe, a journalism professor at the University of Oregon. “But what’s different here is that it’s such a huge, high-profile story that these internal debates are happening in the public domain in a much more open way.”
Last week, The New York Times announced it would move its editorial staff outside of Russia, and The Washington Post said it would protect Moscow-based journalists by stripping bylines and dates from some stories. Condé Nast said it suspended publishing operations there. Radio-Canada correspondents left Russia on March 6.
“It’s definitely a balancing act, and that’s why we are monitoring the situation closely and taking the time necessary to fully understand the new law,” said Chuck Thompson, spokesperson for the Canadian broadcaster.
Some outlets have decided to stay put. German public broadcasters ARD and ZDF said they planned to resume reporting from Moscow after a suspension. But coverage will focus on the political, economic and social situation in Russia – such as the effects of economic sanctions on civilians – while the war in Ukraine will be covered from outside the country.
The BBC said last week that “after careful consideration” it would resume reporting in English from Russia. (Its Russian-language correspondents stopped working.) The broadcaster appointed Steve Rosenberg, its longtime Moscow correspondent, to be its Russia editor, and produced segments on public opinion and McDonald’s closes its stores.
Still, BBC correspondents “need to be wary and careful of the language they use”, said Jamie Angus, a senior executive who oversees news production.
On air, Mr. Rosenberg describes the fighting as “what the Russians call a special military intervention”. Analysis that more explicitly refers to war or invasion can be delivered from London, Mr Angus said.
The BBC began broadcasting through alternative channels like shortwave radio and TikTok in hopes of evading Russian censors. Voice of America said that one day last week, 40% of its Russian audience reached its coverage through censorship-evading apps such as Psiphon and nthLink. His Facebook page has also seen an unusual spike in traffic from Italy, a sign that some Russian citizens may be using VPN services to circumvent information blocks.
“There are no insurmountable challenges today in the digital world – we just have to be nimble,” said Alen Mlatisuma, editor of Voice of America’s Eurasia division.
Deutsche Welle, Germany’s public broadcaster, had 35 people working in Russia, which was also the hub for coverage of Ukraine, Moldova, Georgia, Kazakhstan and other former Soviet republics.
Last month, the Russian government withdrew the broadcaster’s accreditation and closed its Moscow studio. Deutsche Welle’s website is now blocked in Russia and its Russian Facebook channel’s viewership has plummeted. The outlet has withdrawn all its journalists from Russia, spokesman Christoph Jumpelt said.
“The fact that they revoked our credentials and physically expelled us from the country, and made it impossible to work in Russia as officially accredited journalists, does not mean that we cannot continue to cover Russia from inside Russia,” Mr. Jumpelt said. noted. “There are many, many ways to access information.”