INCIDENTS AND THREATS
The Kremlin is desperate to prevent the Russian people from learning the facts about the death and destruction Russian’s invasion of Ukraine is causing. At a time when it is more important than ever for journalists to be able to safely tell the truth about the war, press is increasingly targeted by Russian aggression and disinformation.
RFE/RL journalists have shown incredible bravery and fierce determination in their mission to share the facts with audiences during this crisis. Journalists, particularly in RFE/RL’s Ukrainian Service, are risking their lives to tell the story of what is happening in their country, and to show the world the importance of freedom, as well as its costs.
RFE/RL Ukrainian Service journalist Maryan Kushnir, who was embedded with the Ukrainian troops, suffered a concussion during a Russian rocket attack on Ukrainian forces outside of Kyiv in the early morning hours of March 11. Ukrainian troops launched a counterattack to drive occupying Russian forces from a village in the Kyiv and Kushnir joined them as they battled for control. With blood streaming from his head, he recorded a short video immediately afterwards, saying: “I don’t know where I am exactly. This is what the situation looks like near Kyiv. We’ll try to get out of here.” Kushnir plans to return to covering the war as soon as he can.
Even before Russia’s February 24 invasion, RFE/RL journalists in Ukraine have witnessed and been affected by Russian violence in Ukraine. Footage by Kushnir showed a group of journalists and officials, including Ukrainian Interior Minister Denys Monastyrskiy, running from mortar fire and taking cover on the ground as blasts rang out on February 19 in Donestk: ‘’Here! On the ground! Move it! Fire!’’ shouted the group. Kushnir himself was running from the blasts as he filmed.
Despite identifying themselves as media, journalists continue to come under fire.
Four journalists have now been killed since the start of Russia’s war on Ukraine: American journalist Brent Renaud, Fox News reporters Oleksandra Kuvshynova and Pierre Zakrzewski, and Ukrainian cameraman Yevhenii Sakun. Dozens of others have been injured or have disappeared. Since the start of the war, multiple RFE/RL journalists have been detained and harassed:
- Russian Service journalists Sergey Khazov-Cassia and Andrey Kiselev were detained and later released on February 26 in Belgorod in South-Western Russia, while covering anti-war protests.
- Three Russian Service journalists—Ivan Voronin, Artyom Radygin and Nikita Tatarskiy—were detained and held by Moscow police on February 24 while covering anti-war protests.
- The home of Anton Mesnianko, a Russian Service freelancer in Russia-occupied Crimea, was searched on February 25 by Russian FSB agents.
- On February 20, journalists from Current Time, 24/7 Russian-language TV channel run by RFE/RL in conjunction with Voice of America, were detained in Taganrog, in the Rostov region of Russia while they were covering a story about refugees from Donbass. Russian police said the issue was regarding press accreditation and they were released the same day.
As the Kremlin seeks to control the narrative about its war in Ukraine, Russia is leading a crackdown on independent voices, using new censorship laws to silence dissent. On March 4, Russian President Vladimir Putin signed a new law into effect that calls for sentences of up to 15 years in prison for people who distribute "false news" about the Russian military.
RFE/RL suspended its operations in Russia after local tax authorities initiated bankruptcy proceedings against RFE/RL’s Russian entity on March 4 and police intensified pressure on its journalists. RFE/RL President Jamie Fly said that the decision “has been forced upon” the company “by the Putin regime’s assault on the truth.” Fly said RFE/RL will continue to expand its reporting for Russian audiences and “will use every platform possible to reach them at a time when they need our journalism more than ever.”
The bankruptcy proceedings stem from Russian media regulations requiring RFE/RL and other media outlets deemed so-called “foreign agents” to label their online and social media text content with a lengthy notice, an audio statement with all radio materials, and a text declaration with all video materials. RFE/RL has refused to comply with this mandate or pay the millions of dollars in fines that have piled up, and rejects the “foreign agent” label, saying it connotes that it is an enemy of the state.
"We are nobody’s agent, and we considered -- and continue to consider -- this labeling demand to be censorship, an attempt to interfere in editorial policy," Andrei Shary, director of RFE/RL’s Russian Service, said in a statement to readers on March 6.
RFE/RL condemns Russia’s blocking of websites run by its Russian, Tatar-Bashkir, and North Caucasus services, including the Russian language North.Realities, Siberia.Realities, Idel.Realities, and Caucasus.Realities sites. Access to the sites was blocked after RFE/RL refused to comply with Roskomnadzor’s demands to delete information about Russia's invasion of Ukraine. On February 28, Russia blocked access to the websites of RFE/RL’s Crimea.Realities and the Current Time Digital and TV network.
In anticipation that the Kremlin could act on its threats, RFE/RL has been informing its audiences about how to continue to access its reporting in the event that its websites are blocked. Russian-language reporting by Crimea.Realities can be accessed on a mirror site. A Current Time TV mirror site is also available and material can be accessed using VPN client nThlink. Audiences can subscribe to Current Time’s pages on Telegram, Twitter, Instagram, Facebook and TikTok or watch its broadcasts live on YouTube and subscribe to its channel. All materials from the Current Time site are available on our Google Play and App Store applications, which include a built-in VPN.
PROPAGANDA WE’RE UP AGAINST
As Russia wages its brutal war against Ukraine, targeting civilian areas and drawing global condemnation, many people living in Russia and Russian-occupied Crimea consume false narratives promoted by Kremlin-controlled media. When RFE/RL spoke to people in Crimea, the Ukrainian peninsula seized by Russia in 2014, there was ignorance about what is going on.
As the Kremlin and state media have refrained from disclosing details of the casualties Russia has incurred in its invasion of Ukraine, RFE/RL spoke to mothers of Russian soldiers who were shocked to learn their sons were fighting in Ukraine, after being told they were on training exercises.
Many Russians are being fed a daily media diet of Kremlin propaganda that hides the terrible destruction and human cost of their country's invasion of Ukraine. So how did ordinary Russians in Perm and Vladivostok react when Current Time reporters showed them some images?
OUR PEOPLE IN TROUBLE
On February 16, a Russia-controlled court in occupied Crimea sentenced RFE/RL freelance correspondent Vladyslav Yesypenko to six years in prison for the alleged possession and transport of explosives, a charge he has steadfastly rejected. Said RFE/RL President Jamie Fly, “This judgement against Vladyslav is a travesty. As a journalist doing nothing more than reporting the facts, he should never have been detained in the first place, much less put through the physical and mental torture that he has endured over the past eleven months. Vladyslav needs to be returned home to his wife and daughter immediately.”
RFE/RL condemned the March 3 sentencing of its former Belarus Service journalist Aleh Hruzdzilovich by a Minsk court to one and a half years in a maximum-security penal colony. An award-winning journalist, Hruzdzilovich was arrested on December 23, 2021, and was tried on March 2 for taking part in mass protests against the 2020 presidential election. Hruzdzilovich has consistently rejected the charges, stating he was working as an RFE/RL correspondent with Foreign Ministry accreditation at an August 2020 protest, and covered two other protests in October 2020 on assignment for his employer, the local newspaper Narodnaya Volya.
Hruzdzilovich is one of three former RFE/RL journalists imprisoned in Belarus. All three have been recognized by the Belarusian Human Rights Centre “Viasna” as political prisoners. In December 2021 Belarus's Interior Ministry added RFE/RL’s Belarus Service, Radio Svaboda, to its registry of extremist organizations in a continued clampdown on independent media and civil society. The move means that Belarusians who subscribe to Radio Svaboda online could face up to six years in prison.
A LOOK AHEAD
Please join the Committee to Protect Journalists at 8:00 am EST on March 17 as they host RFE/RL journalist Golnaz Esfandiari in a discussion on the threats that Iranian women journalists face and what steps can be taken to support them in their work.