By Katya Moore & Shelby Doren
Table of Contents
The current situation in Russia and Belarus regarding the freedom of speech is very disturbing. Many facts, reports and experts are witnessing that the authoritarian leadership of these countries grow closer with each other in a broad context. It includes their crusade against freedom of speech and alternative opinion. NYCFPA’s report, by analyzing existing research and publications, as well as expert’s opinion was dedicated to reveal causes of this problem and potential ways to solve it.
USSR PROPAGANDA STYLE
The absence of freedom of speech was one of a few reasons why the West’s direct advisory, a great power, the USSR collapsed thirty years ago. Gorbachev’s Perestroika and Glasnost lead USSR’s 15 republics to become independent from each other and brutal Soviet censorship in 1991. The Russian Federation and Belarus people were among those who were celebrating their achievements, looking at the West as their future, and hoping that restrictions on freedom of speech never be put back in place. Now, both are in confrontation with Western countries. Their Democratic institutions are failing. Specifically, journalists that were part of the positive social movements are under attack. Meanwhile, they are maybe the last obstacle for the iron curtain to come back.
All media in the Soviet Union, including TV and radio, newspapers, and magazines were owned and strictly controlled by the government. The goal of the Soviet media was to support the Communist party line. Speaking of which, “propaganda” came to the West from the USSR with the same meaning – not to inform, but to convince the public to agree with official state opinions. Alternative views were not welcomed, and overseas radio stations were jammed; dissenting newspapers and books were destroyed. Soviet people were able to listen to so-called “enemy voices” (Voice of America and Radio Freedom) but only with the help of special equipment and under the threat of severe penalties.
The situation changed during Mikhail Gorbachev’s policy of Glasnost. Journalists Yegor Yakovlev at Moscow News and Vitaly Korotich of Ogonyok pushed the boundaries of the USSR’s nascent press freedom by covering once-forbidden topics such as street gangs and prostitutes, homelessness, pollution, and AIDS. These topics were given their due justice and were written about honestly. (Cooper, 2015)
Prime Time of Russia’s Newfound Freedom of Speech
After the August Putsch of 1991, when Soviet people defended their new freedom by coming out into the streets, the future of a free press looked even brighter. Journalists supported society’s fight for independence from the state. The first and last president of the USSR, Mikhail Gorbachev, was put under house arrest by hard-liners in 1991 when most national newspapers were banned. But many journalists vowed to keep the independent press running by publishing underground papers in Moscow.
Following the failed Putsch, Boris Yeltsin issued an order allowing Radio Freedom to open an office in Moscow. December 25, 1991, was the USSR’s last day, and the Commonwealth of Independent States was announced in its place. Two days later, the newly created Russian Federation adopted the law “On the Mass Media,” which directly prohibited censorship. At that time, the media in Russia was as free as in the West.
Thus, Russia had much potential for a free and independent press. Many experts agree that, despite the so-called zakazukha, when journalists took money to write stories to smear political enemies or business competitors, the ’90s were a golden era for independent media companies. (Belik, 2013)
Russian oligarchs Boris Berezovsky and Vladimir Gusinsky built their media empires at that time. However, Gusinsky’s NTV (an acronym for Nezavisimoe TV, Independent – in Russian) wasn’t an independent media source. One of its founders, Igor Malashenko, was a member of the electoral headquarters of Boris Yeltsin, and the channel was often silent on some of Yeltsin’s failures.
However, NTV kept producing many high-profile investigative reports and iconic shows such as “Namedi.” The program’s founder, Leonid Parfenov is still a role model for many young Russians aspiring to independent journalism. In addition, Berezovsky’s ORT was home for another famous news program – Vzglyad (View) and another leading journalist, Vlad Listyev. He was assassinated in 1995, one month after being appointed the chief editor of ORT, his murder remains a mystery.
Many other major Russian media projects appeared in the 1990s – newspapers Kommersant, Vedomosti, Radio Echo of Moscow, etc. However, Vedomosti, a joint project of Wall Street Journal and Financial Times, stood out from others in Russia’s media landscape. Created in 1999, Vedomosti was also produced with a European-backed Russian publishing house, Independent Media (later sold to Finland’s Sanoma). The FT and WSJ remained shareholders in Vedomosti until 2015, when they didn’t have a choice but to sell their shares after Russia adopted a law limiting the percentage of foreigners in Russian media to 20%. For many years Vedomosti was the flagship of Russian independent business journalism, despite many conflicts with high government officials and top management of state-owned companies.
Frogs in a pot of heating water on the stove
As soon as Vladimir Putin became president, the independence of the media was gradually reduced under the disguise of ‘regulatory enforcement’. First, restrictions hit the TV media that were the main source of information for the Russian people. Berezovsky lost ORT in 2000. Some say that it was due to ORT’s press coverage of the tragic sinking of the submarine, Kursk. NTV was next on the hit list, and a staff member at that time said disturbing signals came soon after the “Nord OST” (2002) and Beslan (2004) terrorist attacks when the media reported what was happening minute by minute.
The new government went after Gusinsky and Berezovsky, who alleged that Putin had forced them to choose between jail or give up their media holdings. So, they gave up their media holdings, and since then, these media have faced more and more restrictions. Putin’s system fails to bring the murderers of journalists and activists to trial. As a result, the 2004 murder of American journalist Paul Klebnikov and Novaya Gazeta’s Anna Politkovskaya’s killing in 2006 remains a mystery.
Another “red line” was crossed in the context of press independence in Russia after the war in Georgia in 2008 when the requirement was “to take a side that was never done before,” said an employee of a primary TV channel. But, in his opinion, the point of no return happened in 2014 during the Ukrainian campaign – reporters completely lost their independence.
In this period, the Russian government changed the narrative of its own news agency, RIA Novosti, the country’s largest news source. The head of RIA Novosti, Svetlana Mironyuk, was asked to leave. According to NYCFPA sources, this happened because of how the agency covered protests on Bolotnaya Square led by Alexey Navalny and other reporting. The next RIA director, Sergey Kislev, simultaneously has his TV show on ORT.
His aggressive propaganda approach toward the news got its own name, kiselevschina. After that, RIA Novosti went through a further shake-up and created the Sputnik news agency headed by Russia Today chief Margarita Simonyan. Since then, nearly all Russian TV channels and news agencies are in sync, and it’s difficult to discern any difference between their coverage.
Every attempt to create alternatives, such as TV Channel Dozhd (Rain), were opposed and suppressed. Now, channel Rain only broadcasts over the internet.
Surprisingly, for the last decade, there still have been independent sources of information. However, Kremlin oligarchs and authorities didn’t stop their crusade against freedom of speech. A huge media scandal happened in 2019 when the politico-military analyst at Kommersant, Ivan Safronov, wrote a story about the possible resignation of the Speaker of the Federation Council, Valentina Matvienko.
The owner of Kommersant, Alisher Usmanov, fired Safronov after he flatly refused to reveal his sources. Safronov is in jail and accused of treason, working for a NATO intelligence agency. While officials insist that Safronov’s work is not related to the charges, experts say that his other articles about Russian military contracts and politics made many influential people upset. So, they’re really after his sources, who are considered as “rats.”
Kommersant’s main competitor, Vedomosti, was able to keep its independence despite changing owners. However, as was discovered by Forbes (May 12, 2021), the loss of Vedomosti’s independence was just a matter of time. According to sources, Vedomosti’s final buyer was state corporation Rosneft (officially, Rosneft refuted this). After Vedomosti criticized changes in the Russian Constitution and Putin’s new term as President, a new editor Andrey Shmarov was introduced to the staff, and he started a fight against so-called ‘newspaper dogma.’ Journalists tried to resist, but unsuccessfully. Finally, many of them left and decided to create a new Vedomosti – VTimes. During the fight, Shmarov wrote on Twitter: “I think this clique will be…when it’s discovered that my father worked in the Gulag”. (Lately, he edited his post).
Natives considered as a foreign agent
The other tool that the Russian government often used against media was foreign agent law. This law was adopted in 2012, modified repeatedly. As a result, BBC and Voice of America are in danger in Russia. Disappointment about this legacy was expressed personally to Putin by President Biden (White House, June 12). Furthermore, the Russian government started to use this law against even Russian dissenting mass media. In his interview to NBC (2021, June 11) before meeting with Biden, President Putin insisted that this law is like FARA in the U.S. However, compared to FARA, Russian law is so broad that every person or entity receiving any money from any overseas source and making political statements can be qualified as a “foreign agent”.
While the law doesn’t directly require shutting down media, it is slowly killing it, creating bad publicity, and making sponsors afraid to cooperate. For example, ex-editor of Vedomosti and VTimes Kirill Kharatyan told NYCFPA that VTimes money was mostly Russian but managed via an EU account. Another source of independent information, Meduza, was called a “foreign agent” as it’s registered in Latvia. While Meduza still fights and lives only on donations, VTimes decided to stop operations on Russian Independence Day, June 12.
“Many lawyers that I knew during my work in VTimes classify this law as a loss of legalistic understanding of the law,” Kharatyan says. He also believes that in the current circumstances, freedom of speech in Russia is factually impossible. He explains that freedom of speech works when the society as a whole requires objective coverage and ready to pay for these services. When a stratum domain controls the narratives, freedom of speech won’t work. “Russian money is not enough to continue operations because of the situation in economy and sponsors who have financial means to support operation require unprecedented loyalty; money from overseas is prohibited.” Interestingly, three days before the other source of alternative opinion – Navalny’s FBK stopped operating. A court in Moscow banned all organizations linked to the jailed Kremlin critic by classifying them as “extremist.”
Journalist John Varoli who has worked closely with the Russian media since 1992, says that he saw with his own eyes how “the country went from total freedom in the 1990s to today’s severe media restrictions” when Russian journalist “don’t dare even think about stepping on ruling elite toes.” And all the narratives on “protests against Putin and foreign policy objectives; as well as sectors deemed vital to the social order such as the place of homosexuality in society, or issues relating to the Orthodox Church” are controlled. But beyond that, in areas where the state and its ruling elite do not have vital interests, there is still a good amount of media freedom in Russia, he says.
In Kharatyan’s opinion, there are no longer any independent media in Russia in the true sense of the word. On the contrary, every media outlet is restricted and confined in its way – some out of caution, some due to self-censorship, or sometimes even due to sympathy with the state. Nevertheless, a critical thinker should still extract a realistic understanding of contemporary events by comparing and analyzing these various sources, Kharatyan believes.
Same beginning – different scenario
The same processes regarding the media happened in Belarus after the USSR crash, but the suppression of freedom of speech occurred there a lot faster. In 1991 after Belarus got its independence and was led by Stanislau Shuskevich. Many experts agree that his term could make Belarus a genuinely democratic state with freedom of the press at the forefront. But with the election of Lukashenka in 1994, that possibility was merely a pipe dream. As said by Shushkevich, 1994 was the first and only fair election that Lukashenka has won. (Szostek, 2021)
Research Fellow and co-founder of the EAST Center Veronica Laputska says Lukashenka’s desire to control the media became very clear form the very start of his first presidential term. Several of the country’s state-owned newspapers experienced direct censorship almost immediately when they attempted to publish a report alleging corruption within then-President Lukashenka’s administration. “I can tell you that the attacks against independent journalism started pretty much right away. I still remember even from my childhood how there were newspapers like Svaboda that faced many problems for being independent. They got banned from being sold in the press kiosks,” the expert explains
In addition, the editors in chief of many newspapers and TV channels were replaced by presidential appointees by end 1990s. Lukashenka already abused media on a massive scale when he was trying to persuade the Belarusian population to vote in 1995 and 1996 referenda the way he wished. Once Lukashenka had gotten the 1996 constitutional referendum through, governing the media became much easier for him. Therefore, media became even more restricted. Laws made it illegal to defame the honor and dignity of the Belarusian president or disseminate information on behalf of unregistered organizations.
There had been a lot of talk in 2008 of a single information space between Russia and Belarus, which means that the citizens of both countries could receive all their news from the same single area. Despite Belarus already allowing Russian media to participate in their media space, further inserting Russia’s influence over Belarusian media. However, despite this strong relationship between Russian and Belarusian news organizations, it has had drawbacks for Lukashenka; there have been instances where Russian networks do not paint Belarus and Lukashenka himself in the most favorable light. This has caused Lukashenka to put some journalists working for the Russian news organizations in jail, others fled the country. The most notorious though was the disappearance of Dzmitry Zavadski in 2000, who worked for ORT and filmed ‘illegally’ at the Lithuanian-Belarusian border. Previously he had worked as a personal camera man of Aleksander Lukashenka is believed he was abducted and most probably murdered. After incidents like this, Lukashenka has censored many of the Russian news outlets and made parts of them available only through Belarusian networks to further edit their content. This broke into an information war between Moscow and Minsk in 2010.
The other possible victim of Belarus’ regime was Belarusian journalist, Pavel Sheremet, an investigative journalist who worked for Ukrayinska Pravda at the time when he was murdered in 2016 by a car bomb in Ukraine. Previously, Pavel had worked together with Dzmitry Zavadski for ORT Russian channel and was widely known for his criticism of the Belarusian regime. This coverage forced him to emigrate to Russia, but he eventually had to flee Russia for Ukraine due to his reporting on the Donbas conflict. Just this year, Belarusian initiative Belarusian People’s Tribunal published audio of Belarusian KGB security service recordings dating back to 2012 about plans to murder Sheremet (Belsat.eu, Apr 1, 2021)
In the 2020 election, Lukashenka claims he received 80% of the vote; however, the rest of the world was not in a hurry to recognize this election. The Belarus people took to the streets in protest. According to Reuters, “Around 35,000 people have been detained for taking part in street protests since they flared up in August, human rights groups say. Dozens have received jail terms. Authorities say more than 1,000 criminal cases have been opened.” According to Human Rights Watch, there have been 336 documented detentions of journalists and 60 incidents of violence against journalists in the months following the presidential vote. (Freedomhouse, 2021)
Once Sviatlana Tikhanouskaya fled the country and tens of thousands of Belarusians protested the election’s outcome, she called for him to step down by October 2020. Still, he refused to, claiming one would have to kill him before he held another election. (Parker, 2021)
Media platforms like Telegram channels NEXTA and Belarus Golovnogo Mozgaand outlets such as RFE/RL, TUT.by, Belsat were crucial to Belarusians during protests. This is because these platforms were able to build trust with their audience. This trust was essential to spreading information to Belarusians.
The crusade against the largest independent media outlet in Belarus – TUT.by started in March 2019 but was over in 2020 due to their reporting about protests. In 2019 Maryna Zolatova, the editor in chief, was ordered to pay the 7,650-ruble fine ($3,600) and over 6,000 rubles ($2,800) in legal costs. Media TUT.by and BelaPAN were alleged that they illegally accessed materials from BeITA, a state-run wire agency. TUT.by’s website was blocked following the election in 2020 while journalists were reporting on the protests and, specifically, the protestors’ death. The offices, as well as homes of these journalists, were raided. Some have been detained and sentenced to prison.
The editor of NEXTA, Raman Protasevich, and his partner Sofia Sapega were hijacked later by Belarus authorities. Due to a fake bomb threat, the Ryanair plane that flew them to Lithuania was forced to land in Belarus. These young people challenging Lukashenka deeply hurt his ego as Laputska explained, “for him [Lukashenka] personal loyalty, like for all dictators is the most important thing, and once he sees that there is no more loyalty left, he can do terrible things.”
Telegram channels of the media outlets and independent ones like NEXTA and Belarus Golovnogo Mozga became crucial during protests. They received anonymous information, sometimes from people who were part of the state apparatus, both police, and state officials. People trusted them. Lukashenka could not control these platforms. However, using these platforms came at significant risk. Laputska explains, “when people were detained, the first thing they were asked to show to the police… was the phone, and they were checking to which Telegram channel this person was subscribed. After authorities saw that they were subscribed to the anti-government Telegram channels, they were not just getting fined but sentenced to prison terms very often.
Laputska says that the fight for freedom of the press in Belarus will continue; however, it cannot be done alone. There needs to be help from the international community. There already has been some support, but it is not enough. However, there is a few more different ways in which the international community can help.
CONCLUSION: Close the range
Many experts agree that what is going on with the freedom of speech in both countries is one more additional sign that two regimes – Belarus and Russia grow closer day by day. On the one hand, Russia and Belarus have economic, structural features (in particular, law enforcement agencies), which, so far, protect Russia from ultimate arbitrariness. On the other hand, Lukashenko’s experience is tempting for the Russian ruling elite to solve similar problems. “Therefore, in my opinion, with a certain lag, but Russia is moving along the path of the Belarusian scenario,” Kharatyan says.
For him, a confirmation “of how quickly we (Russia) learned the Belarusian rules” is that two weeks later, after what happened to Protasevich, Russian FSB detained ex-head political activists’ group Open Russia Andrei Pivovarov. Russian authorities stopped the airplane that was ready to take off to Warsaw from Pulkovo (St. Petersburg) for this operation. In fact, this is not much different from the situation with Ryanair, Kharatyan added.
At the same time, Varoli thinks that Russia’s and Belarus’s clampdown on media must be viewed within the global context. “When the global media revolution was taking off around the year 2000, ruling elites everywhere realized that they had to secure control over major media outlets, and then, of course, the Internet and Big Tech companies,” he has concluded.
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