At a youth forum near the Moscow region last week , Kremlin spokesperson Dmitry Peskov claimed that Western media take orders and “professionally prepared falsehoods” from intelligence services.
Aside from the remarks being false, Peskov’s comments are an example of what is known as an “accusation in a mirror” where an aggressor accuses others of taking the actions it instead is taking.
In his remarks, Peskov said that the West has “a lot of talented journalists,” but “since they unleashed this war against us, they absolutely live in a state of military censorship.”
Yet media analysts have documented how it is Russia, not Western governments, that has imposed laws and restrictions, along with a widespread disinformation campaign, as part of its war effort.
And unlike the West — where media are independent and have structures and policies in place to prevent undue political or business influence — independent journalism in Russia has been largely stamped out, data from media watchdogs show.
The country currently ranks 164 out of 180 countries on the World Press Freedom Index, where 1 shows the best environment for media.
Media watchdog Reporters Without Borders, or RSF, which compiles the index, says that since the war “almost all independent media [in Russia] have been banned, blocked and/or declared ‘foreign agents’ or ‘undesirable organizations.’ All others are subject to military censorship.”
Ukraine, meanwhile, ranks at 79 out of 180 countries on the index, with RSF saying that Russia’s war there “threatens the survival of the Ukrainian media” and that the country is “at the frontline of resistance against the expansion of the Kremlin’s propaganda system.”
Years of attacks
Even before the war, independent media in Russia faced harassment, attacks and legal challenges from the state.
Dozens of media outlets and journalists in recent years have been forced to register as “foreign agents,” a designation that forces them to mark all content and social media posts — even personal ones — with a lengthy disclaimer.
Daniel Salaru, a contributor to the Vienna-based International Press Institute, described the foreign agent law as a “key tool for repressing independent media.”
And the European Court of Human Rights in 2022 ruled that the legislation had violated the rights of the groups designated as such.
Investigative journalists in Russia who took on sensitive issues or looked into official corruption have long been targeted with threats, attacks or even killings.
War heightened acrimony
The hostile environment only ramped up when Russian invaded Ukraine. Now, reporting on anything that the Kremlin deems to be false information about the war or the armed forces can be punished by up to 15 years in prison.
Russia’s media regulator has ordered news outlets to use only “information and data” from “official Russian sources.” And access to dozens of websites, including VOA, and social media platforms Facebook and Twitter, have been blocked.
The rash of new laws had an immediate effect, with several prominent independent media outlets shuttering or moving their operations into exile.
Estimates from the legal aid group Setevye Svobody, or Net Freedoms Project, earlier this year estimated that in the first year after the invasion at least 1,000 journalists left Russia “because of the threat of criminal prosecution and a ban on the profession.”
Harassment from afar
But exile is not always a barrier to harassment, as Dozhd TV, which relocated to the Netherlands, has found.
In July, authorities designated the station an “undesirable” organization, meaning that anyone deemed a member of it risks imprisonment.
Already, journalists, social media users and others who are refusing to toe the Kremlin line have faced prosecution.
In April, two Russian journalists from republics in Siberia were arrested on charges of “knowingly publishing false information” about the armed forces. Both could face up to 10 years in prison.
A court in February handed down a six-year sentence to Maria Ponomarenko, another journalist from the Siberian region, over a social media post about Russia’s deadly airstrike on a theater in the Ukrainian city of Mariupol in which civilians were sheltering.
She and four others have been recognized with the Boris Nemtsov Award for their “brave defense of democratic rights and freedoms” by speaking out against the war.
The award is named for Boris Nemtsov, an opposition leader assassinated near the Kremlin in Moscow in February 2015. Nemtsov was working on a report, published posthumously, about Russian soldiers secretly fighting in Ukraine at that time.
Others have faced more hefty sentences. A court in April sentenced Vladimir Kara-Murza, an opposition politician and columnist, to 25 years in prison, in part for spreading what authorities called “false” information” about the army.
Amnesty International said the charges against Kara-Murza stemmed “solely from his right to freedom of expression.”
And on August 2, a 67-year-old named Takhir Arslanov was sentenced to three years in prison for saying that “Kremlin fascists” were waging a war of aggression in Ukraine, and for calling for the burning of draft offices.
This article originated in VOA’s fact-checking initiative, Polygraph.info.