Is it possible to report from Moscow?
IN RUSSIA, journalists must refer to the country's actions in Ukraine only as a "special operation". To use another word to describe such events is a criminal offence that could land you 15 years in prison. Indeed, citizens have been arrested for holding up signs saying "don't kill" (quoting the sixth commandment to Moses) or even signs that literally read "two words".
Stuart Smith works in the Moscow office of a broadcast news agency. He described to the March LFB meeting the constraints under which he and colleagues in Russia report.
Stuart was speaking just half an hour after Marina Ovsyannikova, a journalist at Russia's Channel One television station, staged a one-woman protest live on air, running into the newsroom with a sign reading "No war... don't believe the propaganda... they're lying to you". She has been fined 30,000 roubles (£215) for posting a pre-recorded video explaining her action, after a 14-hour interrogation. It is "unclear" whether she will face further charges in connection with events in the studio. To avoid breaking the law, Russia-based news outlets showed stills with the sign that Marina held up blanked out.
At the outlet where Stuart works, he and colleagues were "recently deciding whether it's still possible to report from here in Moscow, because of the reporting restrictions." It's not just the use of words other than the "Kremlin-designated term" for the "special operation&quo; that's problematic: "anything we say can be interpreted as... justifying sanctions" and that could also be considered a criminal offence." Journalists reporting from Moscow are "walking a tightrope".
"No-one's really sure whether we can still report usefully in Russia."
"For the last week we have not been reporting at all on the Ukraine war while we try to work out the consequences of the new law." You can't even cover the "economic consequences of the Ukraine 'special operation' in Russia."
As he spoke, his team were "about to go back "on air and avoid mentioning... terms that are illegal " While giving a Russian perspective as best they can, Stuart and colleagues will try to rely on "other reporters in safer locations" outside Russia who will be able to add their perspective and fill in the gaps. Stuart's outlet "hasn't covered any protests up close" in Moscow, for fear of arrest. "It's much more dangerous than we've seen before."
The constitution of the Russian Federation actually has "good protections" for journalists covering protests: "The State guarantees the journalist, in connection with his professional activities, the protection of his honour, dignity, health, life and property as a person fulfilling a public duty. Interfering with the legitimate professional activities of journalists is punishable by imprisonment for up to six years." That "sounds great on paper".
Several members expressed much disapproval of the blocking of Sputnik and Russia Today (RT), the English-language internet TV channels sponsored by the Russian state. We were reminded that RT has not been stopped from broadcasting by the UK regulator OFCOM, it is investigating. Both are now banned across the EU, and - as we heard in the meeting - in Arab countries. And they have been "banned by the likes of Facebook, which are thus showing their hands by acting as publishers," as Freelance editor Mike Holderness put it - which would have possible implications for copyright and for payments due to authors.
The International Federation of Journalists (of which the NUJ is a member) described in a statement a "new wave of repression by banning RT and Sputnik". The meeting decided to refer the matter to the Branch Committee to discuss further action.
Western media outlets in Russia are working on the assumption that the Russian state "would rather deport us [or] revoke our accreditation than criminalise us and put us in prison.". Among high-profile reporters, Steve Rosenberg, the BBC's Russia Editor and Russian Correspondent, is "back on air after studying the new law... he is taking more risks," with "the resources of the BBC and perhaps the UK Foreign Office behind him" and with the benefit of 30 years' experience as Moscow reporter, "Russian officials know who he is."
"It's much harder of course for Russian journalists in Russia - they are far, far more vulnerable."
The BBC's Russian Service (part of the World Service) has stopped operations in Russia. Its journalists are now "writing from abroad". Many Russian journalists have "fled to Estonia, Latvia or Lithuania". Newly-elected LFB Chair Tim Gopsill told us how through a friend he had been "helping a journalist in Russia who is in trouble.".