Message from Keith
Russia’s egregious, unprovoked invasion of neighbouring Ukraine has ignited a geopolitical, economic and humanitarian crisis that could extend beyond Europe. And Russian President Vladimir Putin’s war against independent media has created a crisis for journalism that could also have far-reaching implications.
To support his false narrative about Russia’s aggression against Ukraine, Putin’s media censors have shut down Facebook in Russia, denying his citizens a key social media platform for getting truthful information about the war. Then Russia passed a sweeping new censorship law against so-called “fake news”, which now makes it a criminal penalty to refer to the war in Ukraine as a “war” or to call Russia’s action “an invasion.”
As a result of Putin’s crackdown on truth, outlets like Echo Moscow, a prominent freewheeling radio station, and others have been forced to close. TV Rain, a youth-oriented independent television station, was also forced to close. Novaya Gazeta, the outlet founded by Dmitry Muratov, who just won the Nobel Peace Prize alongside Philippines journalist Maria Ressa, had to delete all its war reporting online.
International media outlets have also been forced to suspend their operations in Russia out of fear the new law could put their reporters at risk just for telling the truth. They include Bloomberg, CNN and other major media. Some organisations have opted to withhold their reporters’ bylines from stories. Russia’s government censors had already blocked access to BBC, Voice of America, Radio Free Europe and others.
This sweeping crackdown on the media now leaves about 145 million people in Russia without access to independent, truthful information. That kind of information control is essential to Putin to maintain his mythical narrative of the war he launched, and to check growing protests at home. Without accurate independent reporting, citizens are left in a universe of falsehoods and “alternative facts”.
The implications are frightening.
Russia has long been an inhospitable, even dangerous place to be a journalist, and even more so in the 20 years since Putin has been in power. Recently there had been a growing if grudging tolerance for a few brave independent media outlets in Russia to flourish. But the actions in recent weeks show how quickly the tide can turn.
Other authoritarian leaders eyeing events in Russia might also consider using similar “fake news” law to try to rewrite history and enforce their own version of the truth. Imagine journalists in other countries facing criminal penalties for using the word “protest” instead of the authorised term “riot.” Or for calling a government “authoritarian”. Or for writing that a carefully controlled election was “rigged”.
Hong Kong officials have repeatedly said they intend to introduce their own law against so-called “fake news,” not by consulting with journalists and media educators here in Hong Kong but by studying the experience of other countries. Now do you see why some journalists are scared?
Keith B. Richburg
Director, Journalism and Media Studies Centre