Russian reporting rules impede, not muzzle, journalists

Steve Rosenberg, BBC correspondent from Moscow, noted in a recent dispatch that a Russian law requires him to refer the invasion of Ukraine to "special military operations." He then quoted a Russian human right lawyer who used "war" liberally.

Russian reporting rules impede, not muzzle, journalists

Journalists have been hampered by restrictions on Russian news agencies reporting. These restrictions can lead to up to 15 years imprisonment. Many journalists continue to report aggressively even when they are not in Russia. They use modern tools that were unavailable a generation ago, such as the Internet, encrypted communications and mobile-phone cameras with millions of users.

Vasily Gatov (a Boston-based Russian media researcher), said that "I don’t believe there’s any lack of information about Russia,” and his mother still lives in Moscow.

March 4th, the new law placed restrictions on the use of the word war and threatened punishment for stories that contradict the Russian government's version. It also required journalists reporting to the outside world, to reevaluate their operations.

For several days, the BBC stopped reporting from Russia. However, it restored its coverage on March 8. Some news agencies have removed journalists from Russia, while others have taken out bylines. Many news organizations are concerned about the safety of their journalists and have not made any public statements about how they deploy them.

Reporters who displease authorities in the former Soviet Union could be removed from the country. Ann Cooper, who was a former executive director of Committee to Protect Journalists and NPR bureau chief for Moscow, stated that a law that allows them to be imprisoned for up to 15 years is an entirely different risk.

"The criminal code change, which appears to make any independent reporter into an indictable criminal purely by association," John Micklethwait (Bloomberg editor in chief) stated to his staff that the company's reporters would be withdrawn from Russia.

Bloomberg reported March 23, that Anatoly Chubais, Russian climate envoy, had resigned and fled the country. Except for a tag mentioning Simon Kennedy's "assistance", there was no dateline nor byline in the story.

On March 22, Alexei Navalny, a Russian dissident, was sentenced to a longer term in prison. This sentencing demonstrated how journalists can work in a more restrictive environment.

Even though the decision was made at a penal colony located 70 miles away from Moscow. The Washington Post and The New York Times both reported in depth using a variety sources, including Twitter and Instagram posts, other news agencies, and video from the hearing that was shown on YouTube. They also interviewed Navalny aides.

The Times has moved its Russian staff to safety. According to Jim Yardley (the Times' Europe editor), Anton Troianovski is the Moscow bureau chief. Other journalists are scattered across Europe.

Yardley stated that "We continue to monitor Russia closely -- watching Russian television, government briefings, and social media, as well as staying in touch and interviewing experts and sources who are still within the country." We hope to be able to return to Moscow soon but, for the moment, we continue to work hard to cover the country outside.

Many of the new tools that keep journalists informed are being used here. Telegram is being used often for encrypted conversations. Jeff Trimble, a lecturer from Ohio State University and a former Moscow correspondent for U.S News & World Report, stated that this is where Telegram comes into play. He said that there is plenty of video available but it must be carefully checked for accuracy.

Following Navalny's sentencing, the Associated Press published a story about signs of defiance in Russia. It was written with a New York dateline. There was no byline. However, it contained plenty of details, such as police detaining an unarmed demonstrator holding a blank sign in Nizhny Novgorod.

The AP has published some stories without a dateline from Moscow and broken news from outside sources. One example is a March 30 story in which U.S. intelligence sources claimed that Russian President Vladimir Putin was misled by his military aides regarding the war, citing their fear of bad news coming from the battlefield.

Julie Pace, AP's executive editor said that it is vital to continue reporting from countries where press freedoms are restricted. She said that executives from competing news agencies are now talking to each other about security and safety issues in Russia.

It's difficult to track how economic sanctions and war are impacting daily life in Russia without reporters present. Rosenberg's BBC reports are unique because he visited a grocery shop to check out the purchase limits to stop hoarding and spoke with an elderly woman selling her possessions in order to buy food and medicines.

Cooper stated, "It is always important for journalists that they have their feet on ground."

Restrictions are more severe for television journalists. Live photos from Moscow's Red Square are gone. Richard Engel from Ukraine provided a brief report for NBC's "Nightly News" about Navalny’s sentence. CBS News has published BBC reports. CNN used the old-fashioned "Kremlinology", a method of looking at pictures in order to speculate about whether Sergei Shoigu, Russian defense minister, has fallen out of favor.

BBC reported that it had restored reporting from Russia following consideration of the implications of the new law. However, its Russian-language service has stopped reporting from Russia.

Rosenberg has been left to wander the streets. Rosenberg interviewed one parliament member, who said that there are no political prisoners anywhere in Russia.

Rosenberg stated that this is exactly the image that the Kremlin presents for the Russian people. They hope that they will believe there's no war or repression, and that there's no problem.

The BBC declined to discuss whether the Russian government had reacted against his work.

James Longman, ABC News correspondent from Moscow, reported on the first effects of West's economic sanctions as well as Putin's "assault upon free speech" after the law was published.

Longman stated, "There is a creeping realization about 30 years of progress being about to come to an end."

Since then, ABC News correspondents have not reported on Russia from the past weeks.


 

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